“Mom, Will You Drive Me to the Mall?”

Are you sick of having to ask your parents to drive you everywhere? Sick of sitting in traffic on the way to school, in the carpool dropoff line, and to every weekend activity? My kids were.

For 10 years, we lived in the outskirts of Silver Spring, Maryland, outside Washington, DC. We were far from everything, except a park and a pool. We spent at least 10 hours a week in the car, driving back and forth between school, fencing class, and running meets. I also drove to work downtown, which should have taken 20 minutes, but regularly took up to an hour in traffic.

My boys are both runners, but they couldn’t run very far from home without hitting a major road. If they wanted to visit friends or go to the mall, they had to rely on me to take them. (Since I’m not always punctual, that drove them nuts.) I couldn’t stand it, and five years ago, I decided to look for a house downtown that was closer to work, fencing, and school.

For years, downtown Silver Spring was ridden with empty storefronts and empty streets. Then the city turned to smart growth. Smart growth strategies can help a community develop so that it’s walkable, and convenient to stores and public transit. People walk more, so they get more exercise. They drive less, so there’s less traffic and air pollution. They shop downtown, which helps the local economy.

In 2003, a large corporation put its headquarters near the Silver Spring subway station. The city built an outside pedestrian mall, with stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and a green community center, which has a skating rink in winter.  Three supermarkets are within walking distance and there’s a farmer’s market every weekend. Now people come downtown all the time.

We moved to a neighborhood right across the street from my office and my boys immediately loved it. They took the school bus to school and the city bus back after practice. They often hopped on the subway to visit friends or go to the mall.

Five years later, my younger son often runs the six miles home from his high school on a nearby bike trail. My older son is at the University of Maryland studying environmental policy; he can take the subway home on holidays. And I walk 5 minutes to the subway to get to my new job at EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities, which manages EPA’s work on smart growth.

Organizations across the country are working to help communities revive or grow using smart growth principles. If you’re interested in a career in this field, consider environmental policy, planning or architecture. Learn more about smart growth at www.epa.gov/smartgrowth.

Susan Conbere is a Communications Specialist with EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities in Washington, DC.

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