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Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Peas are Rotting in the Pods

From a very young age, I always hated office parks. Even before I really knew what they were, they rubbed me the wrong way. My mother's failed attempt to enroll me in gymnastics when I was four is my earliest memory of this dislike for them. The gymnastics center was in Calverton off Tech Road, and even in my pre-kindergarten mind I felt an empty disposition about the place. Perhaps it was fueled by my hatred for gymnastics (which I only did for about two months) but I certainly remember hating that office park.

They're generic, they're very prefabricated, and the generally have little character. The buildings don't interact with the street or with each other. They are islands surrounded by parking and wasted land. You can't walk to them, and rarely can you take transit to them unencumbered.

Office parks are what urban planners call "pods". Pods are segregated developments with a very suburban design, generally only reachable by car. Office parks are one type. Strip malls are another. Residential pods also exist, in variable densities. What makes them "pods" primarily is their lack of street (and more often than not, pedestrian) connectivity to other types of development, only a connection to the giant arterial roads that connect them all. This creates a hierarchy of roads rather than a street grid network which greatly increases dependence on automobiles.

The neighborhood where I grew up had three separate pods: the low density single family houses, the medium density town houses, and the high density apartments. Though adjacent to each other, you could not go between the three without driving on University Boulevard. (or trespassing, which I did quite a bit as a youth)

I find this situation to create relative disharmony among the different classes. Assuming wealthier people tend to live in the single family homes and lower income families live in the apartments, the lack of connectivity between the two of these groups denies them opportunity to interact with each other, which can result in misunderstanding each other. In the book Suburban Nation, the authors state that this phenomenon can lead to higher crime in the lower income areas which eventually lowers the value of the adjacent areas. This starts a cycle that winds up with high crime and a lower tax base. And of course, congested roads. This effect can also ravage retail and office areas.

Our region is plagued by scores of these "pods". Many of the higher density residential pods in our suburbs could be considered our most unsavory areas. Ironically, fear of lower social classes can probably be blamed for a good portion of this situation; wealthy people don't want to live around lower middle class people, so they box themselves into their McMansion neighborhoods, leaving the less wealthy in disconnected apartment complexes that are homogeneous collections of one particular socio-economic class. This effectively ghettoizes areas of denser apartments, particularly in car-dependent areas.

Road connectivity between various zones (both density and function) works in a lot of places around here. the Orange Line corridor in Arlington is a grand example. High rise apartments closer to transit, single family houses along the same streets further from transit. Downtown areas of Bethesda, Silver Spring, Cleveland Park, and Alexandria work well also, despite their inter-zone connectivity.

What about the areas that pod off different zone densities? Langley Park, Briggs Chaney, Mayfair (NE), Largo (near the town center), Greenbelt, Hybla Valley, White Oak, Aspen Hill, Chillum, and on and on... Not all of these areas are horrible. In fact, each on of these communities has at least a couple of developments in which I would consider living. However they do not serve well as functional communities. They are fractured enclaves disconnected from services and activities. They are subdivisions rather than communities. And of course, they are all riddled with traffic because the lack of connectivity forces people to drive everywhere.

The mother of all pod cities, is Columbia, MD. This car-oriented zone-segregated "city" is choked with traffic, making it a less desirable place to live, making property values go down, bringing down the tax base, reducing the quality of services, lessening the quality of life, ultimately leading to decline. Columbia's decline has been slowed by the fact that it has no municipal boundaries and, like everywhere else in Howard County, is run by the county and not a municipality. I predict that HoCo will experience urban decay all at once unless they enact land use policies that better integrate the city's residential, commercial, and retail areas.

I believe we could do the region a great deal of good if we connected residential and commercial developments with a better road grid. Open residential areas up to commercial areas. Give equal access to parks and recreation; whether you live in an apartment, a condo, a townhouse, or a detached house, you should be going to the same parks, walking to the same bus stops, and shopping at the same markets. Commercial areas should be accessible without driving from the residential areas. Then we are offering equal opportunity for services to the people. It certainly wouldn't serve businesses poorly to have more foot traffic, rather than cars whizzing by.

Anywhere in the region that you think is "podded"? What do you think of Columbia's layout?

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