delware environmental institute

McKay Jenkins: The era of suburban sprawl has to end. So, now what?

McKay Jenkins: The era of suburban sprawl has to end. So, now what?

Rich Hall, Maryland's director of planning, with the state agency since 1992, has a bird's eye view of the state's past. Here's what he sees: While it took three centuries to develop the first 650,000 acres in Maryland, the next million acres have been paved over in just the last forty years—and at a rate three times faster than the state's population. In the last half-century, the Era of Suburban Sprawl, Maryland has lost 873,000 acres of farmland and nearly 500,000 acres of forest. The average Marylander now has one of the longest commutes in the country. Many cities around the state—and not just Baltimore—have seen their populations crash, their infrastructure crumble, and their budgets collapse.

Hall can also see into Maryland's future. He knows, for example, that another one million people are going to move here in the next twenty-five years, and that these new residents—and the 500,000 homes they are going to demand—will add enormous pressure on natural and man-made systems that have already been stretched to their breaking point.

Just for starters, by 2035, the state is projected to lose another 226,000 acres of farmland and 176,000 acres of forest. These are deeply worrisome numbers for a state that is already the fifth-most densely populated in the country, and it is Hall's job to stop, or reverse, these trends. His signature sits atop a provocative new document called PlanMaryland, which consolidates a variety of "smart growth" measures first adopted in 1997 and made official policy by Gov. Martin O'Malley in December. The document, in remarkable detail, raises deep questions about the future of the state and makes plain the economic and ecological benefits of building homes and businesses near existing roads and sewer lines.

But Hall's biggest problems may be philosophical: how to get Marylanders to understand that virtually every person in the state lives within a single living, complex watershed, and that every decision we make—from the houses we buy and the places we shop to the length of our commutes and the way we eat—has an effect not only on the quality and cost of our lives but on the fundamental resources on which our lives are built.