An Interview with Khalid Afzal, Special Projects Manager, Montgomery County Planning Department
by Kristen E. Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training Planner
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) has always been known for its progressive and groundbreaking planning. With the development of the first general plan for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, entitled On Wedges and Corridors, A General Plan for the Physical Development of the Maryland-Washington Regional District in Montgomery and PrinceGeorge’s Counties published in 1964, the bi-county agency established itself at the forefront of contemporary comprehensive planning efforts.
The Wedges and Corridors idea channeled growth along major highways (corridors) while preserving areas of open space, farmland, and low-density residential uses (wedges). (See image at right.) It was based on a regional planning framework by the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Capital Regional Planning Council proposed for the entire Washington, D.C. region, including parts of suburban Maryland and Virginia, in 1960. However, only Montgomery County has continued to follow this planning framework.
The Wedges and Corridors idea succeeded in preserving a large portion of the county as the Agricultural and Open Space Reserve.1 (See image below). It directed future development “down county” (toward the southern part of county closest to Washington, D.C.), urban areas, and along the I-270 corridor. In 1993, when Montgomery County addressed the county’s long-range planning with the “General Plan:Refinement of the Goals and Objectives”, it maintained the Wedges and Corridors concept as the basic framework for its long-term planning.
Map showing the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve; cover of Thrive Montgomery 2050 Issues Report, February 2020
Thrive Montgomery 2050 is the county’s newest endeavor to address the long-range planning challenges and goals. By crafting a new general plan — one that is focused on public participation with input from residents, businesses, and partner organizations – Montgomery County seeks to ensure that the needs of communities across the county are met.
To learn more about this process and their highly creative outreach efforts, we interviewed M-NCPPC’sSpecial Projects Manager and co-leader of the general plan update, Khalid Afzal, and his team. We were interested in learning about Thrive Montgomery 2050 and any changes to the process in light ofdevelopments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what we learned.
Why is the county updating its general plan now?
Montgomery County has evolved over the past 50 years from a bedroom community to a complex jurisdiction of more than a million people living in urban centers, suburban neighborhoods, and rural villages. It has major employment centers that are significant contributors to the state’s and region’s economy. Today, we are facing unprecedented changes of climate change, population growth, increasing diversity and awareness of racial injustice issues, regional and global economic competition,new technologies, and so much more, which will affect how we travel, live, work, play and interact in the future.
The development footprint of the county is largely in place with few remaining undeveloped “greenfield” parcels that had previously accommodated the post-WW II building boom. Approximately 85 percent of the county’s land area is now constrained by environmental and man-made factors leaving only 15 percent available for anticipated growth, which could exceed 200,000 people over the next 25-30 years.
As a result, we are entering a new phase of planning, one defined by infill and redevelopment instead of greenfield development. We believe this is the right time to step back and take a comprehensive look at our planning framework and refine it to meet these new demands and challenges.
What are some key issues the plan seeks to address?
The overriding question for Thrive Montgomery 2050 is: How can we anticipate and address the changes likely to occur over the next 30 years? Here are some of the key issues we identified in the development phase of the plan:
- Economic competitiveness – While assets like the federal sector and a strong bio-tech industry have helped to build a solid economic foundation, more work needs to be done to ensure the county economy remains regionally and globally competitive.
- Diversity – The county is increasingly diverse, but it is not reflected at the neighborhood level which is still largely separated along income and racial lines. Significant gaps in income, education and quality of life remain, having far-reaching implications for the entire county.
- Aging – The county (like the country) is growing older. As baby-boomers age, the 65+ population will increase to 21% in 2045, up from 10% in 1990. Without a commensurate increase in younger workers, this means lower average household incomes and changing needs in housing and social services.
- Other demographic changes – The percentage of people living alone has increased from seven7percent in 1960 to 25 percent in 2018. This trend has great implications for the kind of housing, amenities, and services that will be needed in the future.
- Housing affordability – This is one of the biggest issues facing our county. Nearly one in every two renters is cost-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. More housing of various types, sizes and price ranges is needed, especially near public transit.
- Public health – Significant challenges exist which are greater for lower-income communities. These may worsen because of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, economic stresses, and even climate change. Additionally, we need to create more places that encourage active, healthier lifestyles.
- Climate change – Food systems, environmental resources, and infrastructure may be imperiled, with ripple effects hampering commerce and imposing extra costs on businesses and residents. Disadvantaged communities and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately at risk.
What are the anticipated outcomes of this plan?
Thrive Montgomery 2050 envisions a county that is more urban, diverse, connected, and resilient. It identifies three primary outcomes: improved economic health; equity; and environmental resilience. These outcomes are intertwined and will shape our analyses and conversations about growth. Together, they embody a long-term vision that includes retaining a high quality of life for current residents while also welcoming new residents and new ideas.
In terms of economic health, we want to ensure a vibrant, strong, and competitive economy by attracting and maintaining major employers, enhancing our federal campuses, supporting small businesses and innovation, as well as attracting and retaining a high-quality, diverse workforce.
To foster greater social equity, we want all residents to have equal/attainable access to housing, healthy foods, employment, transportation, education and more. Racial and ethnic diversity has outpaced overall population growth; this demographic shift is an opportunity to develop social and economic strength.
Finally, to develop environmental resilience, we want to incorporate the best strategies to both fight climate change and mitigate the impacts of unexpected events on our human and environmental resources, including our infrastructure and natural ecosystems.
What successes from previous comprehensive plans does the county want to build upon with this update?
Numerous best practices and supporting initiatives have been influenced by the 1964 General Plan and subsequent master plans, including: passing the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit law and Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (1970s); creating the Agricultural Reserve, Transfer of Development Rights mechanism, and transit-oriented Central Business Districts (1980s); promoting mixed-use centers (1990s); and more recently developing the Purple Line, an award-winning Bicycle Master Plan, progressive Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) policies, and our efforts as one of the first counties in the U.S to integrate Vision Zero practices into our plans to reduce severe and fatal collisions on county roads.2
Thrive Montgomery 2050 isn’t about reinvention. It’s about adapting to new realities, refining the way we think about how the county should grow, and updating our existing planning framework to fit these changes. Building upon a solid foundation, the new general plan will modernize and refine the Wedges and Corridors concept, ensuring its relevance for the challenges of the future.
Montgomery County is known for its innovative planning. What innovations will we see in Thrive Montgomery 2050?
The draft plan proposes a concept which permeates the entire plan called Complete Communities,which is based on compact, transit-oriented development in order to address the key issues facing the county.3 Complete communities are ethnically, racially and economically diverse, include a mixture ofaffordable housing types, land uses, amenities and services accessible by walking, biking and transit to support a “15-minute living” active lifestyle. As part of this, the draft plan recommends concentrating new growth along rail and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes to transform major roadways from auto-oriented, heavily trafficked arteries that presently separate communities, into multi-modal, livable corridors that connect mixed-use neighborhoods and other destinations.
How has Covid-19 impacted your approach to planning for the county’s future and the plan development process?
In the midst of our Thrive 2050 planning process, the coronavirus pandemic emerged, causing an unprecedented public health emergency and economic disruption. With the crisis still unfolding as we draft the plan, it underscores the need for flexibility, and creating a vision and framework that transcend current events.
Two concepts, although always a part of the draft plan, are brought into sharp focus: equity and resilience. Crises like the pandemic exacerbate existing social inequities, economic disparities, and other stresses. While most often thought of in an environmental context (e.g., natural disasters arising from or made worse by climate change), resilience is also about policies that help communities withstand such economic and social challenges.
Like millions of Americans, we have made major adjustments, moving all day-to-day operations online, as well as Planning Board meetings and community engagement efforts. Staff continue to develop and review master plans, specialized plans (such as our bicycle and pedestrian plan), sector plans, and implementation policies. Further, we have created an in-house working group to think more broadly about the impact of COVID-19 and to prepare for a post-pandemic era.
What community engagement process is the county using? In particular, any novel outreach efforts, to develop the plan?
Typically our community outreach focuses on “meeting people where they are” – providing a variety of ways to give feedback such as attending festivals and local events throughout the county; offering virtual events to meet the diverse schedules of residents; and providing translated materials and interpretation for events. Highlights have included the plan’s kickoff, Thrive Week, in June 2019, and various youth engagement and visioning workshops.
In response to the pandemic, we have switched to online outreach including events such as “Pints with Planners,” conversations with community members, board members and staff; a day-long Twitter Town Hall focused on the future of housing; an “Ask Me Anything series,” with Director Gwen Wright; and during June, nine “Community Chats,” focusing on each of the draft plan’s primary topics, including one chat conducted in Spanish with English translation. (Recordings are available by clicking the link above.)
What are some of the common themes the staff is hearing from the community at large?
Without a doubt, access to public transit and housing affordability are the two issues we have heard the most about, followed by education/schools, parks, walkability, and traffic safety.
What is the anticipated timeline and how can people participate?
We published draft recommendations in Thrive Montgomery 2050 Goals, Policies and Actions on June 4, 2020. These recommendations were presented to the Planning Board on June 11. We will continue to seek/accept community feedback through the end of July, and the first full draft of the General Plan will be published in September. The final plan expected to be approved by summer 2021.
What has been the largest hurdle to overcome in this process, aside from and including, adapting to the challenges of the pandemic?
The greatest challenge in doing any 30-year plan is helping people to think long-term – many stakeholders are concerned with more immediate issues in their communities. It’s understandably easier to think about and plan for tomorrow than a year from now, much less such a long time-horizon. Yet it is essential that we think about our long-term goals, and the initiatives needed to reach them, despite the uncertainties of the future. A plan is the guide that helps us navigate our way to these goals.
In terms of the pandemic, to adapt our outreach strategies, it was necessary to spend time identifying the most appropriate online platforms and virtual meeting formats to ensure community engagement would remain meaningful.
What lessons learned would you share with other communities and stakeholders seeking to embark on a similar planning process?
- Do as much pre-planning as possible — research, data gathering, consultation with experts and agency partners—to explore what will be the nature and scope of your plan update.
- Develop some parameters — so that you do not get into the weeds of short-term operational and other details that should be addressed by other plans and initiatives in the near term.
- Think big and out of the box — a general plan is the opportunity to envision and launch a future that may not exist now.
These strategies will help you and your community remain focused on the big picture, long-term horizon of your plan!
For more information on Thrive Montgomery 2050, please visit M-NCPPC’s website or contact Khalid Afzal, Special Projects Manager, Montgomery County Planning Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 The Preservation of Agriculture & Rural Open Space Functional Master Plan (1980) established Agricultural Reserve through the mechanism of Transfer of Development Rights. It was a pioneering and bold initiative that made the county a leader in preserving land for farming and open space. It covers about 114,000 acres or about 35 percent of the county. Second to parkland, the Agricultural Reserve contains 38,000 acres or about 40 percent of all forest in the County.
3 Thrive Montgomery Issues Report, February 2020, p. 14.