Build a Better Burb recently sat down with Dan Reed, founder of the suburban Montgomery County, Maryland blog Just Up the Pike, to talk with him about development in the eastern part of the county, how it can create more affordable neighborhoods, and the role New Urbanism in older suburbs. See part one of our conversation here.
Our meeting place was the locally owned Zed’s Café, part of the dynamic Ethiopian-American business community that characterizes east Montgomery County’s commercial center, Silver Spring, which is undergoing a renaissance of new apartment housing construction. Historically, much more development and investment have been concentrated in the predominantly white (but increasingly more diverse) west side of Montgomery County, often bypassing the much more racially and ethnically diverse east side.
As we spoke, the foot, bus, bike, and car traffic of Georgia Avenue went by outside Zed’s picture windows. It was the perfect place to meet: a little bit city, a little bit suburb.
BBB: Last week we were talking about the challenges Silver Spring and east Montgomery County face right now. Are they similar to those faced by other suburbs?
Reed: More of America looks like Dallas or Raleigh or Atlanta than looks like the historic cores of DC or Boston or New York. Those places are really a laboratory for how we’re going to fix all this suburban stuff. I think older suburbs like Silver Spring are part of that too; we have to take that mantle on. For the most part, we are. This county has done some amazing things with suburban retrofits, and promoting transit-oriented development, and really pushing the envelope on what a suburban place can be. In many ways we’ve been a victim of our own success. Part of the reason why it’s expensive here is that it’s a really nice place to live. We offer something that is in short supply, both in the DC area and nationally. It will continue to be a challenge making a case for that, for more people, for future generations.
I’d like to say that for the most part the conversation about smart growth has been won in this area. The question is how do we make sure that everybody gets a piece of it. And also how do we mature huge chunks of the county that haven’t gotten to participate in the prosperity. What we do with those places is going to become really crucial, too. I – this isn’t in Montgomery County but I was in the Largo Town Center Metro Station – next to the station is a dead mall which will eventually be a new hospital. It was interesting to hear one of the gentlemen in the group talk. He was an older black gentleman and he said, “I feel like we always get last year’s model. You look at all the stuff happening on Rockville Pike [to the west], and we never seem to get that.”
Many of these people, they moved from the city to the suburbs, because that was the dream you were supposed to chase. And having arrived, they then see a successive white flight either moving further out or moving into the city. A whole lot of cultural signifiers are changing too, like the whole tension over bike lanes in DC: “We drive these big cars to church because we are trying to achieve what you told us is the American Dream, and now you’re telling us we can’t have parking because the zeitgeist says we have to ride bikes now.” Me personally, I prefer the bikes, but we need to recognize that when we talk about urbanism, as with the environmental movement, it isn’t a given to everybody. A lot of communities have really awful experiences in the city, and still associate the city with that, and we have to confront that, while at the same time acknowledging that people are pretty uninterested in getting last year’s model.
I think that happens in incremental development too: How can we empower people who haven’t always had the access to capital to do it? The funny thing is that in this region where there is so much demand in the market for stuff, if people had chances to do incremental development here, it’d be very successful, but it’s just that everything is so expensive: the land is so expensive, the permitting is so expensive, the legal process to get something permitted and built is so challenging that incremental development in the DC area is my parents’ neighbors putting 15 people and an auto shop in a 1980s house.
BBB: We’ve been talking about building development, but I also wonder what happens if we make sure that we seed small public places throughout the suburbs?
Reed: Oh, Silver Spring is made by its public spaces. It may be expensive to live here, but it’s free to go to the fountain in downtown Silver Spring or sit in Veteran’s Plaza. I think the main reason this area has been able to maintain its diversity is that even though people have been priced out of downtown and the closer neighborhoods, they can still come here and participate in the street life, the plazas and the public spaces. It goes hand in hand with the stuff around it. You need a certain quality of building, and a certain quality of activities in that building to create a good lively public space. I think there’s a real opportunity to talk about that, because it’s something that we all hunger for, right? People know they feel good walking down a nice street or being in a nice park or plaza. They may not know why. I don’t care if they know why, I like hearing that people feel good in a place, because that becomes its own virtuous cycle.
It’s interesting to see how people use public spaces and the differences in that. One of the issues has been around youth and public space. We had a big fight seven years ago about whether there should be a curfew for young people because of stories of people getting into fights in downtown. High schoolers on their own organized a massive turnout to protest; it was really inspiring to see that.
You quickly get into different cultural expectations people have of space and what is a nice place. I look to my parents; my mother emigrated here from the Caribbean and is ethnically East Indian; and my father moved here from rural North Carolina. They have this expectation of the suburban dream. My mother lived in DC and Columbia Heights, and was not about that life anymore, and my father, to show that he’d also made it, wanted to live in a certain neighborhood.
BBB: What have you learned in these 12 years of blogging about the county?
First, that it’s not just having a good idea, but selling that idea. Things you consider self-evident are not so to other people. Not everybody is going to like or agree with you.
I’ve also learned that we really have to work harder at telling a story around social justice in our spaces. Because otherwise, there is always a risk of privileged people who will use the mantle of social justice to keep people out.
Lately I see some of the most compelling coverage of New Urbanism in conservative journals – Jonathan Coppage and others at NewUrbs at The American Conservative, and Strong Towns. I think they are appealing to common values that Progressives also want to uphold, especially in immigrant communities: common values for hard work, economic empowerment, independence, the ability to get ahead, rootedness in community and family.
I ask, what can we do to make the movement more diverse, to build a more inclusive conversation? Because it’s going to happen in these older suburban places more than anywhere else. It’s going to happen in these older suburbs. People have the greatest need for a better public realm and built form, and the place where we have an opportunity to do some cool stuff is right here.