Mistakes of growth need not be repeated

Kai Hagen

April 7, 2005

Albert Einstein once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

We could draw up a long list of examples, more than a few of which could come from government. And, since most of the biggest challenges facing local leaders are related to growth, it's no surprise that much of the "insanity" in Frederick County can be found in Winchester Hall.

That's not to cast aspersions at anyone in particular, especially not the dedicated and talented staff in the county's planning department.

But for many reasons, even though there's a high level of agreement about many of the most basic problems we're facing, it's stating the obvious to observe we haven't done a good job of solving them.

No one likes traffic. There aren't any residents or groups advocating for increased traffic congestion.

Virtually everyone wants our kids to receive a good education. Nobody is lobbying for bigger class sizes, more crowded schools, inadequate facilities, more time spent on school buses, and so on.

Similarly, most of us would like to have excellent parks, ample open space and effective measures to protect our rivers, streams and woodlands. Few of us are happy to see the loss of county farms and our rural landscape. We all want clean air and water, good fire and rescue services, and safe streets.

We want affordable housing, along with a prosperous economy that provides good local jobs, consumer choice, and lively entertainment and shopping.

And, to a point, we're willing to pay for it.

But nobody wants to pay higher taxes, although some people support certain new fees or taxes more than others. If the voters of Frederick County are clear about anything, it's that we don't want to be taxed more than we are.

So, even if we could, we aren't going to solve these problems by throwing money at them. But the fact that partial solutions to many seemingly intractable problems are being repeatedly played out as separate interests competing for slices of ever-tight municipal and county budgets ought to clue us in to the fact that we're on the wrong track altogether. It isn't working.

We're doing the same things over and over again.

Now, in fairness, part of the reason we haven't been able to solve these problems is that they are complicated. Agreeing about the problems doesn't mean we agree about the best way to deal with them.

Another challenge to resolving these issues is that too many of us have come to think of many of the problems as inevitable consequences of growth. We assume there's not much we can do, and we just have to get used to it.

But we don't.

A few decades ago, elected officials and planners had less information available about the costs associated with different choices. And there were fewer examples of real world alternatives to evaluate, learn from, and emulate.

Today, that isn't true. There's no good excuse for the same old same old. If we're smart, we won't keep repeating the mistakes we've made, that others have made, and we'll benefit from what other communities have done poorly and well.

A look around our national landscape offers a myriad of real alternatives, even if they're still uncommon exceptions to business as usual.

One proven solution stands out: increased density.

To some, density is a four-letter word. And it should be, if it's taken only to mean density for its own sake. Badly planned density feeds public perceptions that density is something to avoid. People imagine more traffic congestion, fewer parks, more air pollution, less parking, more crime and so on.

But the truth is out there, and our elected decision-makers ought to know better.

Done right -- and there are plenty of models to show the way -- we can combine density with great design to create vibrant and desirable neighborhoods that offer a wide range of housing types and prices, a variety of transportation options, access to nearby parks and recreation, economic opportunity, and quiet neighborhoods.

Density also cuts infrastructure costs. And not just a little at the margins. Building more dense, truly mixed-use communities can reduce the combined cost of utilities, schools and roads dramatically.

New arrivals to Frederick County would happily buy into such communities. And the rest of us could stop paying more for less.

Either way, we'll have new neighbors moving in. The question is what sort of neighborhoods will they be moving into.

They don't get to decide what the choices will be.

But we do.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at