Opinion: Ten Ideas for a Better, Bolder Bethesda
If only we had: considerate construction, underground utilities, a safer bike network
Ten years ago this month, Bethesda Magazine published a photo spread in the July/August edition entitled “If Only.” It began, “The Bethesda area is great. Here are four ways it could be even better.”
Included were images of Bethesda Row set against a beautiful beach backdrop, Wisconsin Avenue with scenic mountains rising in the distance, Glen Echo Park with a modern roller coaster, and a “free parking” sign on a downtown street.
Though these features may have just been fun Photoshop fantasies, it is possible to find realistic “if only” inspiration from other places near and far.
Many tourists return from trips with souvenirs. I find myself collecting urban planning ideas and design. If other places have “been there, done that,” there is no reason why Bethesda can’t “go there, do that.”
Here are 10 “takeaways” that can be applied to downtown Bethesda and other urbanizing parts of the county:
1 – More of our urban parks and playgrounds had cafés and restrooms. Montgomery County officials often talk about ways to activate urban parks. These two basic features can greatly improve the park experience, especially for families with young children and elderly park visitors, but are rarely given enough credit. (Inspiration: new park kiosks in London; Friendship Park in D.C.)
2 – Construction were more considerate. Providing clear and safe pedestrian passage is standard operating procedure in many cities. In the United Kingdom, an industry organization aims to improve the appearance, safety, environmental impact, and traffic management of construction sites.
Walking around London recently, I noted that every single project had pedestrian passageways. I did a double take when one construction site even had fresh flowerpots installed on the fencing. (Inspiration: Considerate Constructors Scheme, UK)
A pedestrian passageway in London (Photo by Amanda Farber)
3 – The contactless credit/debit card transit fare system were an option. More and more cities offer this quick and easy system and it is gaining in popularity. This should be a no-brainer for Metro rail and buses and for the future Purple Line, especially since our area hosts many tourists. (Inspiration: New York City, London, Sydney transit systems)
4 – All utilities were placed underground in the immediate downtown Bethesda area. This should not even be open to debate during redevelopment projects (though it has been). Doing so vastly improves the streetscape, allows street trees more space to grow, and removes obstacles from sidewalks. (Inspiration: every downtown street without power lines)
5 – Pedestrians were given priority. Too often, thanks to design, distance, and drivers, car culture takes priority over pedestrians in our area. Officials should seriously consider closing down a block of Bethesda Avenue, Elm Street, or Norfolk Avenue from cars on weekends. (Inspiration: Newbury Street in Boston)
6 – A safer protected bike network were in place sooner. Sometimes, a simple curb or planters can create an effective protected bike lane. Projects can be overengineered when a simpler, faster, and less costly solution could be put in place. Some jurisdictions have installed temporary curbs and features while awaiting permanent bike-lane designs and budgets. (Inspiration: Chicago; NoMa in D.C.)
Bike lanes with curbs in NoMa in D.C. (Photo by Amanda Farber)
7 – More public art were installed. The identical big red B sculptures throughout the downtown area announce that Bethesda is “where the arts shine.”
Recently, a new wave of welcome public art projects including the new painting inside the Bethesda Library, the Caps hockey mural on Bethesda Avenue, and the new bright hummingbird mural on Cordell have gotten rave reviews. More projects like these will help the arts shine. (Inspiration; NoMa Mural Festival in D.C.; Playa del Carmen)
8 – Urban playgrounds incorporated more natural and creative play features. The standard-issue primary-color plastic playground has been around for a long time. The new Battery Lane Urban playground is a slight shift away from that model with at least a “nature inspired” theme.
But in urban areas in particular, playgrounds can help people connect more with nature. Adding much smaller play features, like a vertical playground, bubbler fountain, or interactive sculpture, can be just as entertaining for kids (and their parents). (Inspiration: Wallholla Play Structure in Netherlands and D.C.; Garden City Park in Vancouver)
Wallholla play structure in D.C. (Photo by Amanda Farber)
9 – More outdoor events were programmed. Bethesda has several big outdoor events each year, including the Fine Arts Fair, Taste of Bethesda, outdoor movies, Imagination Bethesda and the Veterans Park Summer Concert Series. Recently, the Parks Department has knocked it out of the park with successful pop-up programming, such as the Elm Street Park Yappy Hour, Arborist Tree Climb, and Bike Pump Track events.
Downtown Bethesda has the space and appetite, and chance to draw visitors, with even more events, such as a winter light sculpture walk, bike parades, and expanded farmers market days. (Inspiration: Georgetown Glow in D.C.)
10 – More independent shops and neighborhood retail and restaurants were retained and welcomed. These businesses make a place more interesting, livable, and authentic. At a recent Montgomery County Council hearing, a local small-business owner said that without small businesses, Bethesda would just be “Anywhere, USA.”
As more big-name companies and brands call downtown Bethesda home in the coming years, our small-business community still should be considered our advantage. (Inspiration: downtown Rehoboth Beach; our current existing small and independent businesses)
Amanda Farber has written about the impact of planning, zoning and development issues on the quality of life in Bethesda, where she has lived since 2000 with her husband. They have two sons and several four-legged family members. She serves on the East Bethesda Citizens Association, Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents Board, Conservation Montgomery Board and the Bethesda Implementation Advisory Committee.