Flickr/Governor Martin O'Malley

On the eve of releasing a new smart growth plan, Gov. Martin O'Malley discusses density, smart growth, and a city-centric future

Maryland is running out of space. For decades now, a trend toward low-density development - in a word, sprawl - has created a lifestyle threatens the state's farmland, cities, and the Chesapeake Bay. An antidote has arrived in the form of PlanMaryland, a statewide smart growth plan that encourages the development of high-density residential pockets along established lines of infrastructure. The hope is that this effort will produce a  stronger Baltimore-Washington mega-region, and a more sustainable quality of life.

Over the past three years the state's Department of Planning has collected comments from thousands of residents and produced two drafts of the plan. The public feedback period will end in early November, at which point the department will prepare a final version for submission to Gov. Martin O'Malley. On the eve of this long-awaited step forward, O'Malley spoke to Atlantic Cities about the perils of sprawl, the promise of density, and the state's city-centric future.

"This is kind of wonky stuff," he says. All the more reason to get to it.

The legal directive for a statewide development plan has been in place since 1974, but it's gone unheeded. What inspired you to push strongly for a new land-use strategy right now?

Before I was governor I was mayor of Baltimore. Our city lost about 30 percent of its population in the last 40 years. We've also seen a decline in the health of the Chesapeake Bay. A big part of the solution to the health of our cities and the health of the Chesapeake Bay will be found in smarter and more sustainable ways to grow in the future.

We've seen our population increase by 30 percent over the last 40 years, but the amount of land we've consumed has increased by 100 percent. When you look at the map and do the math you see pretty clearly that pace of land consumption isn't compatible with the notion of restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay, let alone the health of our cities. It took three centuries to develop the first 650,000 acres of land in Maryland, and it only took 37 years to develop the next million acres of land.

So the response is going to be smart growth focused on higher density within a Baltimore-Washington mega-region.

Yes, in a nutshell. We have to accommodate the population growth somewhere. We're all going to have to become more comfortable with higher density and making decisions that foster that higher density and promote and improve quality of life in our city centers. That includes mass transit as well as improving public safety, sanitation, and education.

Some people might argue that there already is a Baltimore-Washington mega-region. How is PlanMaryland going to change life in that corridor from its present condition?

PlanMaryland isn't something we're doing for current residents. PlanMaryland is something we're doing for our children. If 40 years ago we had actually implemented a statewide development plan, you might have a very different state now. You'd have a very different Baltimore city right now. You'd have a Chesapeake Bay that's not fighting for her health year after year. This is something we have to do in order for our kids to be able to enjoy a quality of life here, and be part of this living system called the Chesapeake Bay.

You mention new growth for Baltimore. Speaking more broadly, do you think states would be wise to promote the growth of their cities more than they do now?

Oh, absolutely. Cities, for all the ups and downs, are the major magnet for jobs. Residential growth over the last 40 years has dispersed to a much greater extent than employment. But that dispersion, that suburban flight, has also led to other increases in cost. Cost of transportation, increased use of energy, loss of time in commuting. Forty-seven percent of Marylanders commute to another jurisdiction to work, rather than the one where they sleep. That's one of the highest in the nation. Maryland commute times average 32 minutes, which is now longer than New York and New Jersey. The 700-plus million hours we wasted commuting during 2009 was valuable time, and I'm told some economists have placed a $9 billion value on it.

I really think the city of Baltimore and other cities throughout Maryland provide the answer to our growth challenges, but we need to adopt different policies and grow in smarter ways. Frankly we need better benchmarks and performance measures so the public gets something better than a quarterly report on where we're going, so we can create some situational awareness, with a view that looks over the horizon and into the quality of life we're creating for the next generation.

The percentage of Maryland commuters who drive to work alone is strikingly high.

Huge problem. But when your population is dispersed all over the place, it becomes far, far more expensive to serve that population with mass transit. How many subway lines can you build to reach as many cornfield developments as we've created over the last 40 years?

PlanMaryland makes clear that sprawl is largely the result of previous policies. It also says it will end up giving state residents more lifestyle choices in the end.

We need to figure out a better way forward. You can't blame people for wanting less traffic congestion and commuting time. And yet, if rather than investing in mass transit to conserve higher density populations in your city center, you're instead expanding road and sewer capacity out into cornfields and woodlands and wetlands, we shouldn't be terribly shocked when those investments have the effect of accelerating the consumption of land. Conversely, if we adopt a more balanced approach, and one that makes greater investments than we have in our recent past in mass transit and our cities and the density of our cities, and education and public safety in our cities, and housing and workforce housing in our cities, we can lead to other choices.

I think there are people who would choose to live in cities, choose to have a better quality of life, to spend more time with kids and less time commuting to work if they did not have to compromise their children's safety and education to do so. PlanMaryland will allow us, when we make these broad capital decisions, to make them in ways that instead of accelerating sprawl, improves the quality of life in our cities and towns.

We mentioned the Baltimore-Washington mega-region, but how will areas outside that corridor fit into the plan? Will we see the creation of smaller, livable cities in other parts of the state?

That's our hope. A lot of the municipalities have been put in the position of trying to annex more and more land from the counties as they try to keep their tax base. What we're hoping is with PlanMaryland you'll see a lot more development happening within the footprint of the municipalities. More redevelopment, and higher-density development.

I think PlanMaryland offers a great vision for a stronger future for places like Cambridge, and Salisbury, and Hagerstown. All the municipalities in Maryland, really, because it will drive development to where the infrastructure already exists.

One thing that's striking in reading PlanMaryland is that it requires no new laws. So how then do you intend to enforce its goals?

I firmly believe that as a people we will make better decisions if we are better informed. The Internet gives us the ability as citizens to be much better informed about local land-use decisions at the county level, to be much better informed about the investments we make together through that common platform of ours called our state government. Whether it's improving the health of the Bay or growing in smarter and more sustainable ways as a state, the key to both of those big challenges is found in a much more knowledgeable and much more aware citizenry. In the past you would have been hard pressed to find out in any sort of easy way what sort of land-use decisions are about to be made by your county. Now we have the ability to do that.

Whenever any governor, at least in our state, dares to talk about land-use decisions, it immediately sets off this tremendous fear among county elected officials that somehow this is just the beginning of a takeover of the county's land-use prerogatives. It's very hard to be critical of the counties after the fact, when the state hasn't had the guts to articulate some objective criteria for protecting open space, for protecting contiguous farm economies, for investing in those areas of the state where the infrastructure already exists and the need for redevelopment and job opportunities are the greatest. PlanMaryland is not only a statewide development plan to guide our statewide investments, but it's also an opportunity for all citizens to evaluate how closely their county government and their state government are aligning the decisions that we make together as a people.

You've been quoted as saying local authorities still have the right to make bad land-use decisions, but the state's not going to pay for it anymore.

That's a little more succinct.We estimate, at the current rate, 75 percent of state programs make absolutely no effort to align their program goals, their investments, with smart growth goals. And how can you expect them to if there's no state development plan?

As the six-month public comment period comes to a close, and you head into the next phase, how has the plan evolved to adjust to community feedback?

One of the changes we made is we don't plan to identify the prime areas for new growth without greater input from the counties. We probably need to get to a point pretty quickly here where we identify those areas of the state that are ideal places for redevelopment and new growth. Whether it's transit-oriented development sites, whole swaths of Baltimore city, and the like. We've agreed to put that off for a little bit to give local governments greater opportunities to participate. The plan as it's evolved has become a little more succinct, a little simpler, and we've got some benchmarks to show more specifically what we're seeking to achieve over the long term.

This interview has been edited for length and slightly for clarity.

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