The citizen consultation for the Greenbelt pedbike (Maryland, USA)

Nacima Baron, 2014

The empowerment of users and the taking in hand, by citizens, of urban planning programs in favor of active mobility is a reality in many cities in Quebec, Canada or more widely across the Atlantic. The collective investment of citizens in local affairs and the capacity for self-organization of the inhabitants of a neighborhood, the possibility of being a force of proposal, and collective actions concretely improve the public space. In the United States, too, a certain form of civic morality leads residents to get involved. This personal involvement or « committment » can be deployed in the field of social assistance, in cultural action or, and this is the case of this sheet, in active mobility. The example examined in this case study comes from the testimony and documentation provided by a resident of the municipality of Greenbelt, an official member of the Advisory Planning Board who participated (after four years of intense work, hundreds of field meetings and consultations) in the creation of a planning document entitled «  Pedestrian and Bicyclist Plan  » (abbreviated as Pedbike), official as of January 2014. The sheet was based on an interview in Paris with this person in February 2014, existing research literature linked to additional research by Mary Corbin Sies, and observation work in the city concerned in October 2014.

1. A city very different from the traditional urban model of «  Sprawl city  »

Greenbelt is a municipality in Maryland, part of George County, with a population of approximately 40,000. The population is predominantly white, composed mostly of employees in the service industry. It is located in the close suburbs of Washington DC (about 20 kilometers in the northeast quadrant of this agglomeration), along the interstate highway that links the capital to Baltimore.

Greenbelt is set in an unspoiled, densely wooded landscape. The housing complexes are arranged around a large lake, and numerous sports complexes and public gardens surround them. The place does not resemble the prototype of the American city organized around a grid of highways that encircle endless suburban neighborhoods. The urban fabric is quite different from the classic framework in which American urbanization has developed over the last fifty years, and the mentality of the inhabitants is also quite different: what is most striking is the existence of a collectivist model that permeates daily life. A large grocery store in the center of the city operates as a cooperative, as does the Greenbelt newspaper, which has been free for 70 years and has never stopped being published : it is owned by the residents themselves.

The history of the city explains the originality of its urban morphology and the level of « citizen consciousness » that prevails there. Greenbelt is a model city built at the behest of President Roosevelt during the New Deal era, that is, in the 1930s, just after the Great Depression and on the basis of public funding intended to revive economic activity and curb mass unemployment. The city was conceived and designed by urban planners, architects and landscape architects who were inspired by garden cities and the modernist tradition of « new towns ». The construction of the residences was staggered from 1935 until the 1940s, when World War II veterans were housed in new garden complexes as a reward. The ground plan consists of a series of housing blocks separated by green areas, around different focal points of civic and community life. The center of gravity of all public life is the Roosevelt Center, which hosts the festivities, and adjoins a youth center. Baseball stadiums, swimming pools, libraries, and a quantity of public facilities far superior to what is offered in a typical American city were also built in the 1930s until the end of the 1950s to compensate for the cramped conditions of certain homes. With its four superblocks delimited by a very hierarchical road system (the main roads are located at the periphery of the built-up areas, the intra-urban roads are narrower and all curved), Greenbelt was from the outset conceived as a « walkable » city, even though it was developing in the heyday of American automobile planning. A network of pedestrian walkways, totally separate from the automobile network, is designed and offers five underpasses under the roads: the idea is that children go to the elementary school, the gymnasium, the playgrounds and the neighborhood library in a safe way, and that each household has access to essential services on a local scale (neighbourhood). Children’s lives are thus collective (they can be seen in period photos playing in front of their houses, walking through these underground tunnels to get around their neighborhood independently). Adults, too, are called to both a certain autonomy and a collective organization, defined as «  democratic progressivism ". While the state is offloading planning authority to a land and property cooperative (Greenbelt Home Incorporated), and while much of the communal land is being sold to developers to create extensions (Greenbelt West and East), the residents are involved in several shared projects: the shopping center is created as a cooperative, as are the pharmacy, the gas station, the movie theater, the barber shop, the tobacco shop, the day care center, etc. The entities that govern Greenbelt also have their own specificity. In addition to the city council, two bodies have a strong influence on decisions: the BPA and the Greenbelt News Review (GNR).

2. A pedestrian and bicycle plan produced by a residents’ commission

Greenbelt, for its residents, is more than a residential area. It is a territory in the full sense of the word, a space produced by a human community according to shared rules. The inhabitants are attached to an urban landscape that integrates a high environmental quality, they share a lifestyle that leaves room for collective activities, leisure and culture. At the same time, the inhabitants of Greenbelt are mobilized in terms of citizen participation, they have skills in terms of community organization and social engineering.

These skills are necessary because, at various times in the city’s history, covetousness is exercised and major changes are made to the urban organization. Indeed, a series of events have led private developers to increase their pressure on Greenbelt, due to the city’s location in the heart of a rapidly evolving metropolitan corridor. Greenbelt is located at the intersection of the Interstate Highway (Baltimore-Washington Parkway), which opened in 1954, and the Washington Beltway, which opened in 1964. The NASA Goddard Center moved thousands of engineers to a technology zone on the west side of the city in the 1960s. Through a 1963 County Master Plan, the Maryland county authorities attempted to restructure Greenbelt with a totally automobile-oriented road system, which triggered a citizen’s battle involving not only the municipality, but also the GHI land cooperative, the Greenbelt News Review newspaper and the citizens themselves. Residents’ initiatives attempt to oppose the programs that most undermine local identity (residents create a museum of their city and prohibit the demolition of the Community Center by physically occupying it). However, the road networks are constantly being developed, creating important cuts between the residential areas. The pedestrian and bicycle networks, inherited from the 1930s and 1940s, were neglected. It is in this context that the recent projects to revalorize active modes of transportation, through the realization of a pedestrian and bicycle plan, on the one hand, and through the redevelopment of an intermodal system around the Greenbelt station, on the other hand, make sense.

The Pedestrian and Bicyclist Plan, published in January 2014 under the auspices of the municipality, is a 130-page document produced through nearly five years of work that involved three public entities: the Municipality, the Advisory Planning Board (APB) composed of seven citizens involved in hundreds of meetings in offices and on the ground, and the equivalent of the local planning agency, the Greenbelt Planning Office. A community planner led the citizens’ action in the BPA, and provincial and federal agencies (the Transportation/Land-Use Connections Program of the National Capital Region and the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments) paid for some of the technical assistance provided by a design firm (Toole design group) that the BPA members themselves selected.

The process began in 2008 at the initiative of the BPA, which first collected data from residents through an Internet survey, a call in the city newspaper, and door-to-door canvassing. In the first phase, the BPA carried out extremely precise work on the reality of intra-urban traffic, identifying the poles that generate and attract movement: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the train station, the high school, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, and the cultural and commercial spaces (the Greenway Center, Beltway Plaza and Roosevelt shopping centers). Next, the BPA worked with Toole Design Group to identify the pathways that allow people to get from one point to another, and to locate the breaks that restrict walking and biking and force people to take the car.

The Pedbike Plan is based on a series of very precise maps that provide information on each route using a series of criteria : accessibility, width, safety, continuity, landscape and environmental quality, «  social  » quality of the space, crossing opportunities (based on criteria of clarity, visibility, predictability, average waiting time, speed of crossing on foot, degree of pedestrian exposure, presence or absence of islands, availability of audible crossing information, e.g., for the blind, and type of expected driver behavior (influenced by road geometry, curvature, pavement quality). The work locates all the points where crosswalks should be developed (according to the criteria defined above) and finally presents concrete proposals to facilitate pedestrian access to public transport. In this case, the criteria for rating the sites are the favourable or unfavourable location of the bus stops, the comfort and accessibility of the footpaths that connect these stops to the rest of the sidewalk network, the presence of crossings nearby, the availability or not of sufficient space to get on and off the bus, the comfort of waiting (benches, information about waiting times), and, in the same way, following the diagnostic maps, there are recommendations for the relocation or creation of bus stops.

In a second part, the Pedbike Plan also carefully examines barriers to cycling, using criteria for the usefulness of the bicycle route to directly connect traffic generating poles, calculating the speed and intensity of traffic on the routes, evaluating the condition of the surface (important for racing bikes that have thin tires and increased risk of skidding), obstructions to traffic such as the presence of overgrown vegetation, litter, and the possibility of parked cars. Part of this section concerns the visibility of cyclists and conflicts with vehicles at intersections, the possibility of creating storage space at traffic lights, in front of stopped cars for cyclists wishing to turn left, and the location of bicycle parking facilities.

The design firm prepares a Geographic Information System ( and a CommunityWalk website (, and priority development programs are discussed in meetings between BPA members, the municipality and the planning agency. Finally, the last part of the process is established with the study of the harmonization of this municipal program with the station renovation plan. Indeed, the Greenbelt Metro Station Development Agreement is at the same time signed by the city and the North Carolina County and Metropolitan Authority, with the Public Accessibility Improvement Programs Public Rights-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines (PROWAG) as part of the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and as part of traffic safety policy (articulation with the Maryland Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MdMUTCD). Finally, car parking spaces are restricted: the municipal cooperative is setting up an organic market in a downtown park, in order to further discourage the use of the car for short-distance travel.

Thus, various technical documents have been produced, including a plan that identifies some fifty very precise points on the basis of which concrete recommendations for improvement are listed. The same is true for the bicycle part. The Pedbike ends with a section devoted to ways of encouraging young people to cycle and walk, with an awareness-raising approach integrated into the agenda of the municipality’s leisure centers.

Thus, Greenbelt’s Pedbike does not differ profoundly from other planning documents designed to promote active mobility in the United States and Europe. However, the fact that it was produced not by a consulting firm, but by citizens involved in a collective process is truly remarkable. It is therefore important to emphasize how active mobility is linked to a vision of local politics, and to a certain idea of the quality and intensity of public life among responsible citizens, capable of self-organization and demanding of themselves. This probably cannot be replicated everywhere: Greenbelt is indeed a very particular city in the United States, because of its material heritage (the urban form, the modernist architecture) and its immaterial heritage (the social project that inspired the urban planners of the 1930s and that is finally extended with this approach). But the case of Greenbelt shows that by working for walking and cycling, one does not necessarily promote a new model of futuristic urbanism (smart cities, sustainable cities), but rather reintroduces the fundamentals of local identity and spirit of place.

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