You don’t have to be a traffic engineer to understand why regional transportation plans are important. Roads are built with an eye to connectivity and flow. Improvements go where they are most needed. Planners try to look at the big picture in order to maintain a functional network.
Montgomery County is one of a growing number of jurisdictions that are applying the same principle to environmental protection. Green space is a part of county infrastructure, planners say, that affects residents’ quality of life. And like roads and utilities, green infrastructure needs to be connected to do its job.
“Any healthy system requires vital connections,” said Mark Symborksi, an environmental planner at the Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning. “If you were to break that apart or clog it up, basically you get a collapse of the system.”
LAST WEEK, the Montgomery County Planning Board took the first step toward preventing such a collapse. The Board unanimously approved publication of a Park and Planning staff report that sets a timeline for developing a “Countywide Green Infrastructure Functional Master Plan.”
The plan would set priorities for parkland and easement acquisition, establish target areas for required reforestation tied to development, and suggest legislative and policy changes all with an eye to establishing a contiguous network of green space in the county and ensuring its long-term vitality.
The document approved March 9 proposes a roughly two-year timeline for completing the master plan. Over the next three months, Planning Board staff members will conduct outreach meetings for the general public and for targeted interest groups such as farmers, developers, and conservationists, later developing “mapping scenarios” and a draft master plan. The master plan will eventually go to the Planning Board, County Council, and County Executive for approval.
“If you have a vision—it’s like anything else—if you begin with a goal in mind, you have a better chance of ending up in a good place,” Symborski said.
The green infrastructure master plan concept won almost unanimous praise among those who testified to the Planning Board March 9.
“Basically my testimony just said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, this is wonderful, we’ll do anything we can do to help,” said Jane Osburn, who testified on behalf of the Maryland Alliance for Greenway Improvement and Conservation.
The most frequent criticism at the hearing was that the development of such a plan is long overdue.
“A number of the speakers last night said this is great—it seems so logical,” said Marion Joyce, a Planning Board spokeswoman. “But some of them said, ‘It’s about time.’”
FOREST COVER in Montgomery County has dropped from 45 percent in 1973 to 28 percent in 2000 and the remaining forest is more fragmented than ever, Symborski said.
Large, contiguous forest parcels provide habitat for plants and animals that flourish in interior forest and because they stave off invasive species, which do not easily penetrate large forests.
Stream water quality has also plummeted, according to the staff report.
The development responsible for those changes isn’t exactly reversible, raising the question of whether the Green Infrastructure Master Plan is simply too little, too late.
“We’re no longer even talking about trying to protect big, huge areas,” Osburn said. “We really need to protect urban forest just for the basic services that forests provide.”
Those services include curbing atmospheric carbon dioxide and providing an environmental buffer to sources of drinking water. Add to that a benefit that it sometimes overlooked: having the forest as a refuge from urban life.
Numerous Park and Planning surveys have shown “the most frequently enjoyed activity in our parks is walking on trails,” according to Joyce. “It’s the experience of nature, especially in the downcounty area where there is more development.”
Currently 57 percent of county forest and 62 percent of sensitive areas such as flood plains exists on private land not protected by easements.
Environmentalists said that means the master plan needs to include concrete measures that have teeth.
“A number of county reports address broad visions and goals,” said Caren Madsen of the Friends of Sligo Creek. “We hope the Functional Master Plan will turn our visions into a realistic and achievable plan.”
Planners will have the benefit of working closely with their counterparts in Prince George’s County, which recently adopted its own green infrastructure master plan and is working on implementation.
“Across the country, people are starting to work on plans like this,” said Symborski, who cited a statewide plan for Maryland and a municipal version in Bowie as nearby examples.” Colleges and universities are picking up on it. It’s an idea whose time has come.”