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Posts about Planning


Three big urban planning efforts that will transform Northern Virginia

As 2016 kicks into gear, big plans are in the works to remake Old Town North in Alexandria, Reston Town Center, and Arlington's Lee Highway. In each jurisdiction, there are equally big questions about where housing will fit into future development.

Photo by Rocky A on Flickr.

All three are happening within the framework of last year's local election campaigns, with lagging economies, rising housing costs, growing poverty in the suburbs, and the question of where our jobs will sleep at night. Will 2015's campaign rhetoric translate into places that are affordable, accessible, and walkable, with amenities that can be enjoyed by all in the community?


Alexandria's Old Town North (OTN) Small Area Plan will be an update to the original, which came out in 1992. The goals of the plan are to create a sense of place with innovative architecture, design, and open space, while respecting existing residential neighborhoods. The plan will maintain views of the river and ensure public access to water activities, and promote walkability and accessibility to open space.

Existing city plans, namely the 1974 master plan and the Plan for the Redevelopment of the Alexandria Waterfront, will inform specific recommendations for the new SAP.

Alexandria's Old Town waterfront. Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

Regarding housing, there are 340 committed, affordable public housing units owned by Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) in Old Town North. There are no market-affordable units nor are there any affordable rental set-aside units from market-rate developers located in this study area.

What to look for: How proactive will the city be in promoting more housing that's affordable and accessible? Which tools will it use to achieve the housing goals identified in the city's housing master plan? What role will density play? Will the OTN community support the redevelopment of Hopkins-Tancil Courts and the Administrative Office Building for ARHA into higher density, mixed income developments? What role will the campaign commitment of the new mayor to slow the pace of development play in the plans for OTN?


Summary of what's actually happening in Arlington: Redevelopment is happening along Lee Highway, and the Lee Highway Briefing Book will examine existing conditions and policies that affect the corridor between Rosslyn and East Falls Church.

The purpose of the briefing book is for data collection and research only; no redevelopment is planned at this time, but the hope is to ensure that future growth will be guided by a comprehensive vision for the corridor. The study boundaries will include all land within a quarter mile north and south of Lee Highway.

Lee Highway and Spout Run Parkway. Photo from Arlington County.

Since 2012, a coalition of civic association leaders known as the Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) has been actively engaged in conducting educational forums and walking tours, the ultimate goal being to develop a community-based vision for the corridor. The result has been growing interest and involvement in the work of the LHA.

What to look for: How will the County's need for more housing that's affordable align with the visioning sessions led by the civic associations? As redevelopment occurs, will Arlington be successful in putting housing that's affordable in geographically diverse places? The newly adopted Affordable Housing Master Plan calls for the Lee Highway corridor to be one of those places. What are the challenges to providing additional housing posed by this narrowly defined commercial area abutting established single-family residential neighborhoods?


In Fairfax, Reston Town Center North will redevelop a 49-acre area of irregularly-shaped parcels north of Reston Town Center. The concept plan envisions creating eight block parcels with a grid of streets and a mix of uses "improving the current county services, integrating them into a new mixed-use community with housing, shops, restaurants, and a publicly-accessible central green open space."

This redevelopment takes advantage of a number of large employers and retail and restaurant opportunities located there, as well as proximity to the future Reston Town Center Metro station, creating additional opportunities to live/work/play in this popular and desirable location.

Rendering from Fairfax County.

County leaders are working with the community to refine objectives for the site. In addition to redeveloping the existing county facilities, other possible public uses could include transitional housing for people moving out of the homeless shelter that's there, additional affordable housing, an indoor recreation center or swimming pool, a performing arts center, and community meeting rooms.

Redevelopment plans will move forward in two phases. The first phase calls for the redevelopment of the 6.65 acres just south of Bowman Towne Drive where the library and shelter are currently located. These parcels, known as Blocks 7 and 8 (and which the county owns), are planned for mixed-use development that would include the proposed replacement library and shelter, as well as new affordable housing. The county will be seeking redevelopment partners for these block developments.

The county and Inova will jointly pursue rezoning of the remaining parcels, and then negotiate a full development agreement for swapping land at the conclusion of the rezoning, building the common infrastructure, and establishing easements. Future development of individual blocks would require separate, subsequent rezoning actions.

What to look for: Will the recent collapse of the Lake Anne redevelopment plan inform the county's thinking with regard to selecting a development partner? Will the county use this opportunity to address stated goals in the Housing Blueprint, especially regarding permanent supportive housing and housing for families at lower income levels?

A version of this post is also up on the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance's website.


5 amazing cities from the Star Wars universe

Part of the appeal of the cultural juggernaut that is Star Wars has always been its fantastic settings, including its cities. As The Force Awakens arrives in theaters this week, here are the five most fascinating cities from the six previous live-action Star Wars movies.

5. Theed

Theed. Image from Star Wars.

The Phantom Menace may have been a disaster of a movie, but its setting at the height of the galaxy's pre-Empire luxury showed us a strong contender for the most beautiful city in the franchise. Theed is Queen Amidala's home, and capital of the planet Naboo.

Picturesque Naboo is the Neoclassical Europe of the Star Wars universe. Its ornate buildings and grand, monument-strewn avenues are an idealized version of the Baroque Mediterranean. There's no visible traffic or industry, besides one spaceport at the bottom of a waterfall. Theed's citizens appear to do nothing but shop and picnic.

It's the Garden of Eden of the Star Wars universe. Perfect and naive, and out of place once the galaxy descends into evil and civil war.

4. Mos Eisely

Mos Eisely. Image from Star Wars.

The complete opposite of Theed, Mos Eisely is a frontier settlement on a poor and dirty planet, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. If Theed is Habsburg Vienna, Mos Eisley is Dodge City. Its famous cantina nothing so much as a wild west saloon.

There's precious little art of culture in Mos Eisley. Its hardscrabble populous struggles to survive, and its streets are full of pack animals, cargo crates, and industrial equipment.

3. Gungan City

Gungan City. Image from Star Wars.

Return to Naboo for the secret underwater Gungan City. It's beautiful, but like all things Gungan, it makes little sense.

With a fairly small number of orbs that appear to be mostly empty air, Gungan City is clearly more of a village than a metropolis. Maybe the Gungans prefer isolation, or maybe they're too clumsy to live many side-by-side. Hopefully we're never forced to sit through more Gungan scenes, and therefore never find out.

One would think that if Gungans are such great swimmers that they're happy to build underwater cities, they'd spread their city vertically as much as sideways. Guess not.

2. Cloud City

Cloud City. Image from Star Wars.

High-concept sci-fi at its best, Cloud City is an atmosphere-mining colony on a gas giant planet with no solid surface.

Its workers harvest gases for use in Star Wars' futuristic technologies, and its government is more corporate CEO than democratic president.

Being an expensive floating factory, Cloud City's layout and infrastructure are necessarily vastly different from a cobbled-together frontier town like Mos Eisley. As a single, purpose-designed mega-structure, Cloud City needs nothing so messy as parking lots, and piecemeal expansions are strictly not happening.

And if you approach it without an invitation, cloud cars shoot at you. It's the ultimate gated community.

1. Coruscant

Coruscant. Image from Star Wars.

One city that covers a whole planet. Coruscant is either the ultimate in sprawl, or the ultimate in extreme urbanization. Given what we've seen on-screen, it seems to be the latter.

Like Washington, the capital of the Star Wars galaxy clearly has a height limit, with a canopy of blocky same-height buildings rolling over the landscape, and monuments like the Jedi Temple (above) dominating the skyline. But unlike DC, Coruscant's city planners allow frequent skyscrapers to pierce the blocky canopy.

Unlike other Star Wars cities, Coruscant features busy air-highways, crowded with flying transports. But there don't seem to be enough vehicles to move around a population as dense as Coruscant's must be. Surely the planet is a public transit paradise.

Coruscant's galactic capitol building, with air-highways. Image from Star Wars.

What will we see next?

If the past is any guide, The Force Awakens promises even more aliens and sci-fi landscapes. When I see it, I'll be hoping to see some fun cityscapes too. And, I admit, a few light-saber duels.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


What if we developed the space in front of Union Station?

Columbus Circle, which sits in front of Union Station, is one of DC's most-traversed public spaces. It's up against some unique challenges to development because it's so close to the Capitol grounds, but with the right plan Columbus Circle could be DC's next great neighborhood.

Columbus Circle as it is today (left) and as it could be with the right plan (right). Image by the author unless otherwise noted.

Bordered by a sprawling Massachusetts Avenue lined with parking lots and open spaces, Columbus Circle functions primarily as a glorified traffic circle despite the beautiful views of the Capitol Dome directly to the south. Every day, thousands of commuters hurry across its treeless expanse relieved only by a few patches of grass and the historic Columbus fountain.

Columbus Circle and the surrounding neighborhood. Base image from Google Maps.

What would the city gain if the area between Union Station and the Capitol grounds were developed? I propose a new mixed use neighborhood centered around a public space for people to enjoy. This new neighborhood would add much needed housing near transit while also linking Downtown to Capitol Hill.

Columbus Circle was intended to be developed

In 1901, an effort to commemorate DC's 100-year birthday yielded the McMillan Commission, which produced a plan for future development in the District. Based on Pierre L'Enfant's original plan and the existing ideals of the City Beautiful Movement, the commissioners sought to "prepare for the city of Washington such a plan as shall enable future development to proceed along the lines originally planned—namely, the treatment of the city as a work of artů"

Image from the NCPC.

Union Station, designed by D.H. Burnham & Company in 1907, was designed to anchor a grand civic space in the manner intended by L'Enfant. Senator McMillan envisioned the train station and its surrounding buildings "be treated in a monumental manner, as they will become the vestibule of the city of Washington, and as they will be in close proximity to the Capitol itself..." Although the federal government purchased twelve blocks southwest of the station soon after the plan was unveiled, this vision was never completed.

Here's what Columbus Circle could look like

The rendered site plan below illustrates my proposal for a built-out Columbus Circle centered on the historic Columbus Fountain ensemble. While retaining the existing number of car and bike lanes, Massachusetts Avenue would receive a road diet, enabling the extension of the existing green spaces outward into more usable parcels.

The green spaces would be lined with trees and benches helping to break down the plaza's expanse into more humanely scaled and pedestrian friendly spaces similar to Dupont Circle.

My plan for Columbus Circle could preserve Historic Senate Park and its fountain while building up the northern and western edges with new government buildings (shown in red below). Designed by Bennett, Parsons, and Frost in 1929, Senate Park is framed to the south by the Capitol and to the east by the stately Cannon Office building. Preserving the park would ensure a secure perimeter around the Capitol grounds while creating a well defined park for the southern edge of this new neighborhood.

The McMillan commissioners were greatly influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, which espoused harmony in urban ensembles. For Columbus Circle they envisioned buildings of a uniform building height aligned with Union Station and in keeping with its monumental character. The neighboring eight-story office buildings in downtown's East End align with the top of Union Station's main fašade. This plan would extend the existing eight story height to the new infill buildings (shown in orange above) around Columbus Circle.

Like the Navy Memorial's relationship with the National Archives Building, the two blocks directly opposite Union Station could pick up on the station's architectural language as illustrated above.

The sidewalk in front of the two blocks would be layered with a green buffer and outdoor dining spaces allowing pedestrians to circulate through a two story arcade similar to Union Station.

Columbus Circle's challenges

Despite the potential for a new neighborhood, this area presents many challenges, least of all regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles. Currently, the area below Columbus Circle is zoned as part of the National Mall and Capitol grounds, and as such would need to be re-zoned. Any plan would have to be done in consultation with the National Capitol Planning Commision, the Architect of the Capitol, the Commission of Fine Arts, the Historic Preservation Review Board, and the National Park Service.

As the guide for future development in DC, the National Capital Planning Commission just released the Federal Elements of the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital, which states that new urban design elements should "express the dignity befitting the national capital's image." The plan calls for creating "a sense of arrival to the nation's capital through prominent gateways."

Beyond the regulatory labyrinth and the need to maintain a secure perimeter around the Capitol grounds, the most difficult challenge is the subjective one: how best to build next to prominent historical landmarks.

Today it's common for infill buildings to contrast with their historical surroundings, to be "of our time." Rather than prioritize novelty, the commissioners sought "elements that give pleasure from generation to generation and from century to century." In fact, the plan's commissioners went on a seven week European tour to study "what arrangement of park area best adapts them to the uses of the people."

Washington DC's current renaissance is breathing new life into many once quiet neighborhoods. All over town developers are trying to keep up with the demand for walkable, transit oriented neighborhoods. This has prompted lively debates over how to best increase the housing supply and the subsequent impact this growth will have on the character of our city.

Pierre L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission left us a legacy that is still relevant today as we continue to grow. Columbus Circle offers an opportunity to add another vibrant neighborhood to downtown and finally have an appropriate entry to the capital of the free world.


"Getting sh*t done"

Gabe Klein, former transportation chief in DC and later Chicago, has just published a book, Start-Up City. We're pleased to present a few excerpts. In this one, Gabe talks about how the best plans can collect dust unless leaders push to turn them into reality.

Image from Island Press.

After launching [a set of signs that read "Building a new Chicago" for taxpayer-funded projects,] I decided to make a second, blunter version of the sign to hang in my office. My version read simply: "Getting Sh*t Done."

Each day, I reminded myself of what the mayor would really say behind closed doors, and what our actual goal in the new administration was—to serve the people of Chicago, and fast.

Chicago, like most American cities, had a room chock-full of old plans. With dusty, yellowing pages, most of these plans were decades old and often bore witness to some of the great, unrealized ambitions of my predecessors.

There was a plan for a light-rail project from the 1990s quashed by the sitting governor; a plan for the Bloomingdale Trail dating back to 1998; and an ambitious, but largely unimplemented, bike plan from 1992 entitled The Bike 2000 Plan: A Plan to Make Chicago Bicycle-Friendly by the Year 2000.

We still had a long way to go. Each of these had become stale reminders of how bureaucracy fails itself and its citizens. Today, many of these projects would cost three to four times as much to complete, but due to a lack of political will or foresight or both, all of the social and economic benefits are encapsulated in spiral-bound books collecting dust in the CDOT library.

Plans matter, but so does implementation

We can talk, we can plan, we can talk some more, we can shelve a plan, and we can create new plans, but if you don't get it done, then it didn't happen, right? This is no slight to the planning field—quite the opposite. It's a recognition that moving quickly from conception to planning to engineering to building is hard. Implementation is painful.

It's also true that planning is an important exercise, and not every idea should be taken to fruition. But it is possible to get things done quickly, even as you trudge through the bureaucratic sludge of city government. If I didn't see my work implemented (or at least construction started) during my (or my boss's) tenure, I felt a sense of failure, and ultimately, so will the people you serve.

There are a couple reasons to be obsessed with speed of implementation. The primary reason is that we have no time to waste. With seemingly insurmountable environmental problems created just since the Industrial Revolution, compounded by an ever-expanding population, and a culture that accepts an unacceptable death rate on our streets, the time to act is now.

Also, we need to be realistic about political time frames. The first year a mayor is in office is the best time to strike with a public- or private-sector innovation in your city. By the fourth year, lame-duck syndrome can set in, and/or it's all about re-election. If you want to get it done, time frame is key or you may lose support.

There's a new urgency to get things done

The public sector, and specifically city government, has experienced a resurgence. Led mostly by large cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC and a new cadre of mayors with a national profile, such as Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Adrian Fenty, and Rahm Emanuel, as well as mayors of smaller cities such as Portland, Seattle, Austin, and beyond, local governments have increasingly become the engines of innovation and experimentation in this country.

In the transportation field, cities increasingly set the tone for national and state-level policies, and, in spite of far too limited resources, are delivering new and better services to their constituents.

[Meanwhile,] the private sector, especially in the transportation arena, has ignited a trend toward consumer-oriented, on-demand, and easy-to-use mobility platforms. New technology and analytics-driven companies have sprouted to connect people and places with more flexibility, and are introducing competition with the old twentieth-century business models.

Other services are springing up to provide multimodal information, helping traditional transit become more intelligible and responsive, and in the process, more efficient and consumer friendly. Publicly led, public-private partnerships like bike sharing show that government still has the power and willingness to innovate and plays an important role in facilitating change where the private sector would not go it alone.

In spite of these trends, the chasm continues to grow between the public and private sectors on many fronts and in many places. This gulf stems broadly from divergent cultures, but also from the unmet challenges of change management, a lack of experience and knowledge about the opposite side's perspective, and a persistent skepticism of the capacity for government to efficiently serve the taxpayers.

The city of tomorrow, and the demands of the future citizen, will not be constrained by narrow political windows and interests. We have learned over the last few years in government to make change, or have change happen to you (Uber, anyone?). I believe that the rate of change we will see in our cities due to exponential technological innovation over the next 5, 10, 25 years and beyond is almost inconceivable to us at this point. So the organizational alignment may get harder to achieve, not easier, and we don't have time to waste.

This excerpt has been edited for length. You can purchase Start-Up City from Amazon. See Gabe Klein speak and sign books on November 4 at the National Building Museum at 12:30, that night at BicycleSpace in Adams Morgan at 7:30, or at Upshur Street Books on November 24th at 7 pm.


Here's how DC's youth are getting involved in urban planning

Teens from around the region recently built an exhibit at the National Building Museum to show what they know about city planning and design. It's one of many examples of how local youth are plugging into the world of urban planning.

IWWL participants at a visit to the Washington DC Historical Society research about the history of different neighborhoods. Photo courtesy from the National Building Museum.

The high schoolers behind Investigating Where We Live: New Monuments Revealed, hailing from Maryland, Virginia, and DC, participated in a five-week summer program designed to teach them about, well, design. Throughout, they learned how to create clear and effective images for plans, drafted changes to one of DC's traffic circles, and soaked up knowledge from experts from all over the planning field.

The IWWL program took the teens on an investigative journey of their city, leading to a new understanding of urban planning.

"The biggest impact the participants get is that they gain an awareness of cities," said Andrew Costanzo, IWWL's Outreach Programs Manager. "They realize that there are conscious choices being made, and that they can have a part in the conversations driving those choices."

Students developed an appreciation for the built environment, and brought their photos, sketches, and observations to life by building an exhibit devoted to what they learned this summer.

The best way to learn is by doing

To get a sense of the entire planning process, IWWL teens focused on a new theme each week. In one week, students learned techniques for taking pictures that communicate information clearly. After all, professional planners have to be able to illustrate their talking points to a wide variety of audiences, and good photography skills go hand in hand with that.

Participants put their new photography skills and perspectives to use by going around Washington and photographing public spaces big and small. One day, they visited Arlington Cemetery and the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial; another day, they visited DuPont Circle and the National Japanese American Memorial for Patriotism in World War II (yes it is real and that is its actual title). Students workshopped and critiqued each other's photos daily, and the cream of the crop now adorn the walls of their exhibit.

Students plan, sketch, and compare photographs to help design their own exhibit space. The students built the space to showcase what they learned this summer. Photo from the National Building Museum.

After a few weeks of picture taking, IWWL participants took part in series of design activities led by experts in the field.

One group worked together to imagine and draw plans for upgrades to Sheridan Circle, an underutilized circle on Massachusetts Avenue. They came up with lots of features to improve Sheridan Circle that would bring tears of joy to Jane Jacob's eyes: new sidewalks and connections to other parts of the street, benches so people can sit and relax, and trees for more shade.

More and more, young people are tuning into planning

IWWL is just one example of the ways our region's youth are getting involved in planning. The Building Museum runs other planning and architecture programs for youth like CityVision, which teaches students how to help shape their communities through design and talking to people in their communities.

Beyond the Building Museum, the Washington Architectural Foundation runs the Architecture in the Schools program that connects working architects with classrooms to teach construction concepts.

Even gardens in DC public schools are a big deal in that they are providing real opportunities for youth to get their hands dirty and participate in urban agriculture, which is something that some of the leading urban planners in the world are putting lots of thought into.

Urban planning can be overwhelming if you see it as a giant concept rather than a collection of actionable tasks, especially when you're worried about zits or long division.

"Often times, a program like this is the first opportunity for youth and teens to think about urban planning and architecture," said Costanzo of IWWL. "The built environment encompasses so much that it can be hard to wrap your brain around it."

The new exhibit was designed and built completely by this summer's Investigating Where We Live participants, aged 13-17. Photo by the author.

Programs like these teach young people about specific bits and pieces that help them to see the bigger picture, from like meeting with local residents, designers, and architects to sketching ideas and giving feedback.

Even for those who might not be all that interested in the planning profession, these programs give participants a good working knowledge of cities, and have better understandings of how the world around them takes shape.

Investigating Where We Live: New Monuments Revealed is open through June 5th, 2016.


Prince George's is way behind on smart growth. Courts are helping it catch up.

For decades, Prince George's County has seen less commercial and high-density residential development than its peers in Montgomery, Arlington, and Fairfax, particularly around its 15 Metro stations. That could begin to change now that Maryland's highest court has smoothed the path for new development there.

Maryland court image from Shutterstock.

In a game-changing decision last month, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the Prince George's County Council cannot deny approval of new development projects after the county's planning board approves them, except in extreme circumstances.

Previously, the council's ability to overrule planning board decisions made it nearly impossible to predict which developments might ultimately win approval, and which might never see the light of day.

With such uncertainty hanging over every proposal, developers stayed away. Now, with much less threat of a last-minute council veto, developers may become more likely to build quality projects in Prince George's.

Details of the court case

The court ruling states the council cannot overrule decisions of the planning board in development review matters unless those decisions lacked supporting evidence or were otherwise arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.

Maryland law gives the Prince George's County Planning Board broad authority to review and either approve or deny development proposals.

The county council, on the other hand, has more discrete, but nevertheless significant, powers under state law when it comes to development. It appoints members of the planning board, sets zoning, and rules on appeals from the planning board. But the council cannot, according to this court ruling, overrule the board's decisions on individual development cases, unless the board committed some sort of legal error.

Before this decision, the county council always purported to exercise "original jurisdiction" when it reviewed the planning board's decisions. This allowed the council to decide cases however it wanted, as long as there was evidence to support their decision.

The court, however, said that approach was incorrect. The county council does not have original jurisdiction. Rather, like an appeals court, the county council only has "appellate jurisdiction," meaning it has to assume the planning board's decision was correct, unless the board's decision was legally wrong or wholly lacked evidence.

In other words, the council can no longer simply take development review into its own hands and overrule the planning board's judgment whenever it wants.

Importantly, the court's decision does not eliminate public input from the process. The public still has a full right to argue before the planning board, and can still appeal to the council and then to the courts if they are aggrieved by the board's decision. However, appeals must be based on a legal error, not simple opposition to the project.

The CVS that started it all

This lawsuit arose out of a nearly 10-year effort to build a CVS in Adelphi.

A CVS. Not the one in Adelphi. Photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

The case began in 2004, when the county rezoned the property to allow retail. In 2011, a developer submitted a site plan for the CVS. The planning board approved the site plan, saying it met the rules of the retail zone.

No one appealed the planning board's decision, so everything seemed a go. Until the county council called up the case. They wanted changes, so they sent it back to the planning board with instructions to reconsider a few issues.

In 2012, the planning board approved the site plan again, this time with a few modifications in response to the council's requests. Again, no one appealed.

But once again, the council called up the case for review. This time, they denied the application altogether, after the council member in whose district the property lay spoke against it.

The council listed 14 reasons for its denial, none of which related to the original issues the council had first raised in its 2011 call up.

The developer sued, and three successive courts found the county council in the wrong.

A win for smart growth

A suburban-style CVS in Adelphi may not be the kind of development smart growth advocates usually hope for. But this case will ultimately make approval of genuine smart growth projects easier, by reducing the role of politics in development review.

Bottom line: No longer will developers have to work for years on a seemingly-approvable project, only to have the council yank the floor out from beneath them at the eleventh hour. Rather than leaving development up to the political whims of the county council, this court decision will hopefully allow objective law to rule Prince George's County development review.

A version of this post appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.


DC's two futures

After a generation of losing population, the District is attracting people of all ages, and housing costs have skyrocketed as a result. While growth has slowed, costs continue ascending beyond the reach of not only poor residents but also many middle- and upper-middle-class families.

Photo by David Bailey on Flickr.

As long as this trajectory continues, the District faces two futures: A city inaccessible to all but the most affluent, with rampant displacement pricing out people in all corners of the city (as in San Francisco); or a diverse city that has planned enough housing to fit all of the new residents alongside longtime ones.

Which course the District takes depends on the foresight (or blindness) of its leaders. They can plan for a growing and inclusive city or ignore the dangers ahead.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post.



If you want a place to welcome kids, make it urban

A child's surroundings can make all the difference in what and how they learn, and urban places can offer what kids need for healthy development. Here are some ways we can make places kid-friendly.

Image courtesy of WABA.

While zoning meetings aren't exactly a hot topic on parenting blogs, perhaps they should be. Our neighborhoods' physical structure strongly influences how residents can raise children. Within the cultural conversation around the Meitiv's, the Montgomery County couple who Child Protective Services investigated for allowing their children walk home from a park, little of it has been on how communities could make themselves better places for children.

With increasing proof that children need to be granted more independence and time outside, urban planning in the DC region and elsewhere needs to consider a key group of stakeholders: kids. Parenting and good community planning can go hand-in-hand for making our communities safer and better places for everyone to live.

Vibrant urban and semi-urban communities can offer families more options and flexibility. There are a number of smart planning strategies that can increase children's safety and independence:

1. Make it easy to walk and bike

Parents won't allow children to walk or bike if they feel the streets aren't safe. Making real efforts to build wide sidewalks, maintain high-quality multi-use paths, and build protected bike lanes can provide assurance. In Austin, Texas, for example, a protected bike lane near an elementary school has helped bring the number of kids biking to class up from two to more than 40.

But ensuring kids are safe isn't limited to just controlling traffic. In some neighborhoods, parents must also consider street crime when deciding whether or not to allow their children to play outside or walk by themselves to destinations.

Making streets safe and accommodating all types of transportation in every neighborhood should be a priority for children's advocates and city planners.

2. Promote biking and walking through places kids and parents know, like schools

Installing bike racks, starting walking school buses, and celebrating Bike/Walk to School Days can help parents see that active transportation can be a great option. 2013's National Bike to School Day actually kicked off with 12 Capitol Hills schools and the Department of Transportation representative at Lincoln Park.

Other helpful institutions can include libraries and Boy and Girl Scout troops, which can run bike rodeos or other outreach activities. The City of Rockville's TERRIFIC Kids Program even distributes bikes for free to kids who complete community service activities.

3. Create shared public spaces where people of all ages can congregate

Whether parks or easy-to-walk-around town squares, shared public spaces build a sense of community. When they come together for events both formal and informal, people start to trust each other, which leads them to invest time in their neighborhoods. In addition, spaces like this are often well-traveled enough that children are unlikely to be alone.

A few good spaces in the Washington region include Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring, the Plaza in Columbia Heights, and Yards Park.

Fountains in Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by Paul on Flickr.

4. Encourage smart growth

In many suburban neighborhoods, there are few amenities within walking or biking distance. Having a mix of residential buildings, community centers and commercial businesses allows children somewhere safe and fun to go by themselves.

5. Support good transit systems, especially buses

Public transit gives an extra layer of freedom beyond biking and prepares kids for learning about wayfinding and trip-planning. While my mom told me stories about taking the bus to the next town over when she was a kid, I never had the opportunity because my hometown didn't have a transit system.

Fortunately, the DC region already has solid bus systems. Continuing to make our buses more reliable, safer, and affordable is essential to helping kids use them on a regular basis. The RideOn Youth Cruiser card in Montgomery County, which is $18 for unlimited rides all summer, is a great example for other systems to follow. Students can even purchase them at a number of schools. Thankfully, my two-year-old doesn't have the limits that I did: he already asks "bus ride home?" all the time.

Places that aren't urban can be isolating

While nostalgia-tinged memories often hold less urban places up as idyllic locations, they can actually limit children's opportunities. The lack of other transportation options makes driving a requirement for independence.

Car-centric locations limit children's mobility to where their parents are willing and able to drive them. Often these activities, such as extracurricular classes and team sports, are adult-directed. In contrast to free play, too much participation in structured activities may limit the development of executive function, which relates to self-control, decision-making and attention span.

Car culture and lack of public space also limits kids' active transportation and outdoor play. Lack of exercise and time spent outdoors can contribute to a variety of risks, from diabetes to ADHD. The lack of opportunities for children to play and move outside is so severe that it's actually a major issue covered by the World Health Organization.

Making our cities and suburbs better for children and parents can offer rewards both for citizens now and generations to come.

Note: We've updated this post from its original version to clarify that the National Bike to School Day event on Capitol Hill was first of 2013 rather than the first ever. Also, the original caption for the image of the fountain in Silver Spring said that it was Veterans Plaza. It's actually in Downtown Silver Spring.

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