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Ever feel like you’re being watched by the Green Police? Have a loved-one who thinks that tossing a newspaper in the trash is the equivalent of clubbing a baby seal? Tired of transparent marketing campaigns for products with dubious environmental benefits? You’re certainly not alone.

In this video from TED Talks, Catherine Mohr rightly calls out the insanity of nitpicking over every paper towel or coat of paint, and identifies the real elephant in the room: embodied energy. Embodied energy is the total amount of energy necessary for an entire product lifecycle, including everything from transportation to installation to decomposition. When used as a metric to evaluate sustainable construction construction practices, it can reveal the real opportunities for … Continue reading

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Guest Post: Matt Johnson Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washingtion

Zoning, the main tool to enact land use plans, is perhaps the most important part of planning. By specifying what, where and how new structures can be built, zoning gets things done.

In Montgomery County, a three-year project seeks to greatly simplify an unwieldy, outdated code and achieve strategic growth in a largely built-out county. The zoning rewrite won’t dramatically rezone the county to change the land use patterns, but the zoning code could improve the quality of development in Montgomery County by encouraging more sustainable and compact development and better public amenities.

Noon today, at the Rockville Library, the Planning Department will shed light on the rewrite project to … Continue reading

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As mentioned in the first Rethink event, the blogger panel, FAR (never pronounced far, but each letter: f-a-r, standing for floor area ratio) is one of the more obscure bits of planner patois.

FAR determines a site’s allowed development as a ratio of building area over lot area. For example, an FAR of 1 would allow a one-story building that covers the entire lot or a two story building that covers half the lot or a three-story building that covers a third of the lot. Regardless of a site’s size, it will have the same allotment of building density as its neighbors.

In urban areas, FARs tend to be high, around 6 or 7 in downtown Washington and around … Continue reading

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Pedestrians can have it hard enough getting from place to place, building access to the wrong dimensions shouldn’t exacerbate the problem. The set of steps I used to take from the Metro/Marc station in Silver Spring – from 2nd Ave up to Fidler Lane, next to the McDonalds – are a prime example of bad design. The details of such things shouldn’t be overlooked: you can’t build steps to fit grade, you need to fit human scale. Well, you can, but then you haven’t designed anything, you’ve conceded to expediency.

Steps should follow a simple couple of rules: twice the riser height plus the tread should equal about 26 inches; landings should match this stride length – but … Continue reading

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For all of the beauty of downtown DC’s Metro stations, subway culture in DC has always felt a bit austere. The rare mural or artwork feel forced, intended not to offend rather than uplift or enliven stations. Street buskers aren’t plentiful either, though I’m not sure it would matter. When the Washington Post had world famous violinist Joshua Bell play during rush hour at the L’Enfant Plaza station, seven people stopped to listen. Only one recognized him. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup. All of this seems to suggest that we treat our stations as through-puts rather than informal cultural venues, or momentary sites of entertainment. Yet their potential is immense.

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At the second event of the Rethink speaker’s series, Casey Anderson of WABA and Richard Layman of Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space talked about making (or trying to make) the suburbs more bike friendly for cyclists, both commuters and recreational riders.

Anderson has interviewed 10,000 federal employees about their attitudes and experiences and found some not surprising stats—potential riders are afraid of car traffic, and some surprising ones—even those who would never consider riding a bike think it’s worthwhile to invest in bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Anderson says the take-away for policy-makers and politicians is that this is not flaky, the community will support this investment.

Layman is seeking to make cycling “irresistible,” and emphasized that a bike-friendly … Continue reading

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Tina Schneider, who works in Park and Planning’s Environmental Division, was talking with Planning Director Rollin Stanley about ways to “green” our site. They came up with a number of ideas, which will become our sustainable landscape plan, that include a few bee hives on the roof (starting in mid-May) and turning our flower beds into a vegetable garden rather than planting and replanting them with annuals through the season. About a dozen employees (from neophytes to experts) have volunteered to help design, plant, maintain, and harvest the garden.

Today, Mohammed Turay’s crew of the Parks Department generously got us started by removing the mulch, tilling the soil, and adding some amendments. We’ll have the soil tested this week … Continue reading

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One of the first things I did when I moved recently was to find the local library.  When I lived in Rockville, I had gotten used to being able to walk to the Twinbrook library and was hoping that my new place was equally library accessible.  It turns out that Long Branch library is about 6 blocks away – across from my two grocery stores, bank, and various other shops and restaurants that I am beginning to explore.  If it hadn’t been nearby, I still could have used the Silver Spring library near my office, but for weekends – why take the bus into Silver Spring … unless I’m going to the gym….

When I got to the library, … Continue reading

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Fitting “contemporary” design into existing neighborhoods and development can be a tricky business, especially where the existing character is strongly defined and fairly uniform.  As new projects fill in holes in our more-developed areas of Montgomery County, designers will mount these challenges with greater and lesser success.

A good case study is the Split-Level House in Philadelphia.  Designed by local architect Qb, it has been featured in several design magazines and websites (including the fantastic  But seeing the buildings close-up and in context (which is often conspicuously absent in much architecture coverage) is the real test for how the design works.

So here’s the shot down 4th Street.  The height is in the right place, but I think … Continue reading

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The Coalition for Smarter Growth came out today with its Cool Communities report, that is, places that are mixed use and walkable, generating fewer auto trips and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The report has found a way to quantify diversity and local design, characteristics that are essential to community function and character, but often overlooked in more technical discussions.

Based on recommendations in the executive summary, Montgomery County seems to be doing a few things right—focusing development at Metro stations and making infill development and infill transit top priorities.

Another recommendation is to “create urban street grids” that support “walk and bicycle access to transit.” In Montgomery, all projects in most urban and suburban area include sidewalks, and outside urban … Continue reading