Place  /  Origin Story

One Man Zoned Huge Swaths of Our Region for Sprawl, Cars, and Exclusion

Bartholomew’s legacy demonstrates with particular clarity that planning is never truly neutral; value judgments are always embedded in engineers' objectives.

Bartholomew was appointed in 1941 to the seven-member National Interregional Highway Commission, which developed the plans that later became the Interstate Highway System. As a planner, he pushed back against the highway engineers who otherwise dominated the commission and wanted their roads as straight and cheap as possible. Expressway locations must fit into city plans, he insisted, but given his planning doctrines such coordination would hardly lessen the highways’ destructive effect.

The principles he convinced the commission to adopt were later summarized by his long-time consulting colleague and admirer Eldridge Lovelace: Urban expressways “could revive central areas by making them more accessible, enabling slums to be replaced more rapidly, enabling the city to decentralize even more rapidly, and making it even easier for people to escape the increasing problems of the deteriorating central city.”

Meanwhile, Bartholomew continued as consultant to the District, his influence peaking after World War II with his “great friend” Harry Truman in the White House. The 1950 regional plan drafted by his firm warned of the “danger of further overconcentration” of government offices in downtown Washington and called for dispersal of federal workplaces into the suburbs. In 1953 he became chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission. There he adjudicated the already-fierce battle between transit advocates and road-builders. Finding from his studies that automobiles alone could not meet the growing city’s future travel needs, he opted for what is now called “all of the above.” The plan issued by the 1959 Metropolitan Transportation Study combined the entirety of the highway lobby’s desired freeway network with 33 miles of rail lines. It was this proposal, with a multitude of expressways crisscrossing the District and its environs, that triggered the anti-highway uprising of the following 15 years. As his chairmanship ended in 1960, Bartholomew took on the job of preparing the first master plan for the entirety of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. This was the famous On Wedges and Corridors plan adopted in 1964. The concept here was not new to him – it echoed his 1944 highway location principles, which talked of “wedges of open space” around cities.

On Wedges and Corridors is regularly cited as the framework underlying Montgomery’s current plans, and the county’s agricultural reserve faithfully fulfills its vision for the wedges. But the county’s success in creating lively urban centers rests on its rejection of the plan’s prescription for the “urban ring” – the area inside and just beyond the Beltway that suburbanized before 1960. As he had in the District in the 1920s, Bartholomew made preservation of upscale single-family neighborhoods a paramount goal. “How many more people,” On Wedges and Corridors asks, “can crowd into your community before you feel completely ‘hemmed in’?… Without planning, a prospective home owner can buy a piece of property and a house, but he cannot purchase an unchanging environment.”