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Friday, October 10, 2008

Incorporated

As a Prince George's County resident, I tend to focus my posts more on this area not only because it directly affects me, but also because I feel that it is widely overlooked on issues of urban development and sprawl prevention. This is all too common in Prince George's County... Someone gets struck by a car going at a high speed while crossing a street designed to serve cars and not pedestrians. My last post alarmed me when I saw how many roads are becoming freeways thanks to superfluous interchanges here in my home of Prince George's County. It is horrifying.

I have noted that incorporated towns in Prince George's County seem to be significantly more immune to this "freewayification". Unincorporated areas like Largo, Beltsville, and Greater Upper Marlboro seem to get the brunt of the poorly implemented car-oriented development. Certainly there are may be other factors, but perhaps an incorporated town with direct, small scale representation is less likely to be tolerant of a lack of a sense of place in the town.

Baltimore Inner Space
posted this piece (via GGW) on Owings Mills, and its egregious display of poor urbanism, highlighted by a fence and 'No Trespassing' signs that keep mall patrons from accessing the Metro station even though the two are adjacent. Owings Mills, like every other town in Baltimore and Howard counties, is unincorporated. There is no mayor or council to petition against such poor urbanism. residents of the Owings Mills area are at the mercy of developers and a larger government that oversees the entire county of three quarters of a million people. Perhaps this is why Largo looks like this and downtown Hyattsville does not, even though Largo is centrally served by Metro and Hyattsville is not. Even when Hyattsville fell into blight, its primary artery, US-1 remained a four lane road with a speed limit of 30, plentiful cross streets and traffic signals.

Beyond DC writes about Prince William County's future plans to upgrade transit and create more walkable town centers. Beyond DC is skeptical of the plan's ability to succeed, but applauds the idea of improving one of the most populous counties in Virginia. There are only four incorporated areas in Prince William; Occoquan, Quantico, Dumfries, and Haymarket (Manassas and Manassas Park are both independent cities but are completely encompassed by Prince William County). I would be interested to see the success of this plan in those areas versus unincorporated areas like Dale City and Gainesville.

Not to say unincorporated towns can't thrive with good urbanism. Silver Spring and Bethesda are prime examples of unincorporated areas that have exercised a very intelligent master plan. Both those areas are among the most popular walkable areas outside the District. Of course, those two areas are atop Metro stations and they are both adjacent to the DC line situated on prominent corridors into the city. Wheaton, while not enjoying the same level renaissance, might be a good example of an unincorporated exception. It too has a Red Line station (home to the western hemisphere's longest escalator), and has been improving steadily for about the last twenty years. I ought to know, I went to high school there.

If the Tysons Corner plan gets off the ground, that will be another unincorporated area that enjoys smart redevelopment. Of course, the sector plan for the area seems to treat the area like an incorporated town (strict boundaries and districts, guidelines and regulations specific to the area, a council to govern the plan, etc). Obviously the existing density and planned metro stations have a great deal to do with this overhaul as well.

My Prince George's County seems to have a clear dichotomy between smartly designed incorporated towns working to improve their walkability and livability and unincorporated areas that are draped with high speed roads, poor pedestrian facilities, big box stores, and a depressing lack of a sense of place. Even my neighborhood, technically outside the corporate limits of the City of Laurel, lacks the sidewalks and curbs present in the neighborhoods to the east, north, and west. Does that mean it would be smarter to incorporate more towns? Beltsville, Chillum, Langley Park, Lanham, Clinton, Suitland, Largo, Oxon Hill, and Camp Springs, should we look into incorporating them?

The mayor of (incorporated) Kensington commented on my MARC post informing me that Kensington too will be making improvements to the downtown. Does a government directly serving a smaller group of people help an area create, grow, and preserve their sense of place? Perhaps the incorporation provides more organization for the residents to vocalize their desire to improve the state of their surroundings. Whatever it is, it will likely ensure that my next house will be in an incorporated town.

2 comments:

Dan Reed said...

The urban places in our area exist because of the transportation prevalent at the time. Silver Spring and Hyattsville were streetcar suburbs; they were built around the trolley and today's MARC lines. Largo and Camp Springs were built around freeways and as a result have been designed to accomodate the car. It doesn't have so much to do with incorporation, I think, as it does history.

In fact, I think really small municipalities like the Port Towns are actually less able to determine their own fate because they have so little leverage against larger market and social forces. Colmar Manor might not have a "sense of place" . . . but do you think they have the money or will to make one happen when they're desperate for stores or jobs?

Dave Murphy said...

I disagree with your last point. The Port Towns have banded together to seek their revitalization, something that again only incorporated areas can do.

Unincorporated towns like Beltsville, Lanham, Seabrook, and Palmer Park all sprung up along transit lines, and they're criss-crossed by highways. In all fairness, MLK Highway replaced a transit line (WB&A), but perhaps this highway had something to do with the fact that Lanham and Palmer Park never incorporated