Indicators of Smart Growth in Maryland

Jason Sartori, Terry Moore, and Gerrit Knaap (2011)

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Maryland is often referred to as the birthplace of smart growth, a movement in land use planning that contributed to what is now referred to as sustainability planning, sustainable development, and sustainable communities. Maryland adopted a Smart Growth Program in 1997 with the primary purposes being to use incentives to (1) direct growth into areas already developed and having public facilities, and (2) reduce the conversion of farm, forest, and resource land to urban uses.

The National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland was established in 2000 in large part because of Maryland’s leadership in the field of smart growth. Its mission is to provide research and leadership training on smart growth and related land use issues in Maryland and in metropolitan regions around the nation. Thus, a key focus of the Center’s research is Maryland’s Smart Growth Program: where is it effective, and how can it be improved?

This report provides some indicators (also called performance measures) that suggest answers to those questions. The term “suggest” is important: (1) there are many limitations of any assessment based on indicators, no matter how well developed, and (2) the indicator assessment reported here is only in its preliminary stages. Understanding the limitations of indicators is critical to interpreting their significance. Thus, Section 2 and Appendix B of this report discuss in some detail data, methods, and limitations.

Researchers and policymakers acknowledge those limitations, but that acknowledgement does not slack their desire for indicators that say something concrete about whether desired outcomes are being achieved, and at what cost in direct expenditures and spillover effects; and about directions for policy that would increase the desired outcomes, reduce the costs, or both. Sections 3 and 4 address those issues.

Section 3 reports indicators for six categories of issues. Population and employment growth drive development. That development is the immediate concern of the two thrusts of the Maryland Smart Growth Program: it puts pressure on the natural areas that the Program wants to protect, and it can occur in development patterns that not only eliminate and vitiate those natural areas, but also are inefficient from the perspective of providing transportation and other infrastructure and, ultimately housing (and other buildings). Some of the key findings:

  • Population. The population growth rate in Maryland approximately equals the national average. The indicators give no direct, rigorous, or even casual evidence that the Smart Growth Program either increased or decreased the amount or composition of population growth statewide.
  • Employment. Employment and other measures of economic activity have consistently grown over the last two decades in Maryland and all its regions. From 2000 to 2009, Maryland had the 13th highest annualized rate of job growth (1.0%) among the 50 states. Indicator data allow the conclusion that the Smart Growth Program did not stop economic growth, but they do not allow a conclusion about whether the Program increased or decreased that growth from what it would have been in the absence of the Program.
  • Transportation. For most measures of transportation performance that are standardized, Maryland looks like other states: VMT, congestion, and car ownership have risen consistently over time. Maryland has higher transit ridership than most states, some of which may be attributable to the Smart Growth Program but most of which is attributable to Maryland’s proximity to Washington, D.C. and its own historical investments in transit (especially in Baltimore and in suburban Maryland) that pre-date the Program.
  • Development patterns. Urban development continued in Maryland at densities lower than several comparison states from 1990 to 2000. Most of that growth has not been infill of urban areas: the predominant form of urban development in Maryland remains suburban. Three-fourths of the new single-family acres were developed outside PFAs since 1997. Indicators of Smart Growth in Maryland NCSGRE January 2011 Page 3 While this indicator has shown some improvement in recent years, the share of parcels developed outside PFAs continues to demonstrate an increase over time. Despite increases in density for the state as a whole (which is inevitable if there is any population growth), a substantial amount of Maryland’s new growth has been occurring in the exurban areas of the state. The share of population that lives within a half-mile of rail transit stations, however, has generally risen over time.
  • Housing. Although the single-family share of new housing construction has fallen recently, the single-family share of housing in Maryland is high for a highly urbanized state. Housing prices have inflated faster in Maryland than most other states the last few decades, clearly raising questions of affordability, which varies across the state.
  • Natural areas. The trends for acres of farm and forest land have been steadily downward in Maryland and the U.S. for a long time, but data suggest that rate of decline is decreasing. Maryland and its counties have protected well over 1.3 million acres of land. There is still, however, a substantial amount and percent of critical land that is not protected. Measures of air quality are mainly stable or improving, yet measures of water quality demonstrate poor conditions in watersheds across the state.

If the indicators here are leaning in any direction, it is that Maryland has not made substantial progress toward improving its performance in many of the areas pertaining to smart growth. There are, however, reasons to qualify a direct conclusion like that one:

  • Without the kind of research design that goes well beyond the reporting of indicators into statistical controls for multiple explanatory variables, there is no solid way to rebut the hypothesis that what the Maryland Smart Growth Program did was to prevent many indicators from getting much worse than they are.
  • Things take time. Many changes in technology, social attitudes, prices, and the built environment occur slowly. Indicators of Smart Growth in Maryland NCSGRE January 2011 Page 4
  • If it is too early to expect to see much by way of results (e.g., changes to trends) then perhaps indicators of outcomes should be supplemented by indicators of inputs: of efforts made to stimulate future change (i.e., the number and strength of policies to change the patterns and effects of growth).

Related Resource

Indicators of Smart Growth in Maryland: Appendices