The Disposable Suburbs

May 07, 1994

For most of his term in office, Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden has harped on the theme that should be a pillar of his bid for re-election: reviving the county's older communities.

Rejuvenating the county's oldest neighborhoods, and in turn discouraging further sprawl into the countryside, isn't simply a good tack for Baltimore County. It's in the best interests of orderly regional growth, the health of Chesapeake Bay and the state's pocketbook.

The out-migration of the past 40 years -- from city to suburb to exurbs -- must be slowed. Our growth patterns over the past two generations have been wasteful and expensive, and the benefits ever diminishing. Once, to have moved to the suburbs was to have achieved "the good life." Now, housing densities even 30 miles out from the city are increasingly cheek-to-jowl. Suburban schools are crowded. Crime is a concern. Rush-hour traffic is a bear. How long before we move another county or two farther from the urban core and commutes average 50 miles, one way? That may seem implausible, but 25 years ago Harford, Carroll, Calvert and Frederick counties weren't imagined as bedroom communities, either.

Reversing this immense current will be as hard as making water flow uphill. On the other hand, we've witnessed urban renaissances, the comeback of cities or portions of them, including in Baltimore. Nearly a half-century after developer William Levitt carved out the prototypical post-war suburb on New York's Long Island, we've reached a juncture where our oldest suburbs, like our cities, are decaying. We must do something about it.

In Baltimore County, Mr. Hayden has taken a first step in this direction. He recently tapped the county's imaginative planning director, P. David Fields, to assume a full-time role as coordinator a revitalization strategy. That means focusing land planning, economic incentives and school improvements to enhance the neighborhoods where Baltimoreans first settled in the county but that have since become less attractive to middle-class families. Recent actions by the county planning board and council, ranging from zoning changes to tax credits, have also acknowledged the need to nurture redevelopment in the older areas.

Revitalizing long-established communities has been a strategy for some time in Prince George's County as well. Because this problem and the recognition of it are new, it's too early to say that anyone has found a workable plan to convince families to stay in the older, inner suburbs, much less in the city. However, unless we want to pave more farmland, contaminate the Chesapeake Bay and worsen auto pollution, we can't keep leaving behind the remains of these disposable neighborhoods.

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