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UMD, Montgomery County Re-Think the American Suburb

May 14, 2014
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Planning conference examines the changing face of Montgomery County communities and suburbs across the country

Ellen Dunham-JonesCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – According to the most recent Harris poll, sponsored by American Planning Association, only 10 percent of Millennials and active boomers want to live in a suburb "where you drive everywhere." As metropolitan areas across the country grapple with the profound economic, demographic and environmental shifts of the 21st century, they also face the demand for a vastly different American suburb -- one that is more urbanized, sustainable and diverse. This past weekend, the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG), in partnership with the Montgomery County Department of Planning and the UMD Urban Planning Program tackled the changing 21st century suburb with Makeover Montgomery 2 | Moving Forward Montgomery (MM2).

The conference brought nearly 300 design and development professionals, academics, students and citizens together with some of the nation's brightest minds in planning, design, economics and development to discuss strategies and examples for shaping the future of Montgomery County, Maryland suburbs and beyond. The three-day conference engaged participants in twenty-one topic specific sessions, covering subjects ranging from public/private partnerships to public art, and closely examined national examples of successful suburban redevelopment.

"The long-held myth of suburbia has always focused on the nuclear family," said David Cronrath, dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation to a full auditorium opening night. "What I think this conference is trying to do is create a new myth; one that isn't built on the individual but, instead, is built on a community and the possibility of solving problems together, finding a better way to settle on this earth."

The conference kicked off Thursday evening with a keynote address delivered by Ellen Dunham-Jones, award-winning licensed architect and professor of contemporary architectural and urban design studios and theory at the Georgia Tech School of Architecture. Dunham-Jones, who co-wrote Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburb, outlined the profound challenges facing the American suburb, including rampant vacancies, inefficient infrastructure, quality of health and a changing demographic, which is more diverse and facing an explosion of aging boomers. "Who is living in the suburbs isn't who the suburbs were designed for," said Dunham-Jones.

Yet, in the face of such challenges, communities all over the country are re-dreaming suburbs through creative design and the sustainable rehabilitation of underused property, creating more walkable, thriving communities.

"At first, there was a story to be told about the tremendous opportunity for redeveloping suburban properties," said Dunham-Jones. "But now, the story isn't just 'retrofitting is happening.' The story is that there are some great examples out there of communities that are raising the bar. I think Montgomery County is a fabulous place to have the discussion of what some of those examples are."

This is the second time in three years that UMD has teamed up with Montgomery County's Department of Planning to cover this growing and serious issue. Several UMD faculty and students participated and presented sessions over the course of the conference. It is just one example of an on-going relationship between Montgomery County—known for innovative and ambitious community planning—and the university's Urban Planning and Smart Growth education programs, offering students and researchers the opportunity to learn and benefit from the challenges and successes of a rapidly changing suburban landscape.

"We have benefited tremendously from our relationship with Montgomery County," said Gerrit Knaap, director of the NCSG. "We trade on their international reputation of outstanding planning and have a terrific relationship that moves very gracefully from the county to the planning program to the NCSG. They regularly hire UMD planning students, both as interns and post-graduate employees, helping the planning program recruit the best students in the nation. The County also frequently taps into NCSG expertise on a variety of planning and smart growth issues."

The Montgomery County Planning Department will offer recaps and video of several conference sessions this week on http://www.makeovermontgomery2.com. To see the conference's keynote speech by Ellen Dunham-Jones, visit the NCSG website.