A “transect” is a term used by planning professionals to describe a spectrum of land use, from the urban core to the rural vista. But better than the static definition was the bus tour that Maryland’s new Sustainable Growth Commission took last week to become more grounded in the issues as it begins its work assessing how the state can grow in more sustainable ways. The tour was the second gathering for the commission, two weeks after its inaugural meeting. The group replaced the former two-year Task Force on the Future for Growth and Development in Maryland, which ended last spring.

The tour began at the State Center complex in West Baltimore that’s about to be wholly remade as a Transit-Oriented Development. The project seeks to transform an oft-described “urban wasteland” of government buildings into a mixed-use complex with retail and housing that can better capitalize on the location’s proximity to subway, light rail and bus service. Caroline Moore of Ekistics, a private partner in the $1.6-billion project, told the commission that the 28-acre site is very uncommon with enormous potential. It is surrounded by some of the city’s poorest and richest neighborhoods as well as major instititions of higher education and culture. The development is projected to generate taxes and vibrancy in an area where offices now shutter at nights and on weekends.

“This could be Baltimore’s Millenium Park,” she said, referring to Chicago’s much-acclaimed, modern urban oasis. “It’s an incredible opportunity. With the train access to the airport, you can get anywhere in the world from here. And you’ll also be able to get to 100 miles of bike paths right from here — to the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls, Northern Central.”The tour bus pulled out from State Center and headed northwest toward Pimlico through neighborhoods whose housing stock of gingerbread Victorian rowhomes is irreplaceable yet whose ills, confirmed by plywood-masked windows, have been impenetrable.

The bus continued through Park Heights, the first ring of suburban growth where 1960s-style garden apartments evoke the set of TV’s “Mad Men.” The next cue was Owings Mills, the 1980s planned development centered on an enclosed shopping mall that has struggled. A Transit-Oriented Development is also in the works there to revitalize the area with restaurants, a library and college branch. “We saw the urban challenges of TOD. This is the suburban challenge of TOD,” said Don Halligan, director of planning and capital programming for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Next stop, about 15 miles north in Upperco, was Trenton Mills Farm, operated by the Mielke family. The large agri-business has been protected from encroaching development by state resources and Baltimore County zoning. The regulations were cited as a national model of rural land conservation by the American Planning Association last spring.

The tour continued west into Carroll County where the commission met with county and town planners to discuss water resource challenges, and then lunch at incomparable Harry’s Main Street Grille (known for its hot dogs and burgers). The group then toured the Carroll Arts Center, an art deco moviehouse. Its striking restoration through a public-private partnership has been a boon to the county seat. Commission members continued several blocks away to new townhomes at Union Crossing, an innovative response to the need for more affordable housing and infill development. Last, as it headed south toward Liberty Reservoir, the group heard from Jay Sakai, director of the Water Management Administration for the Maryland Department of the Environment, about the need to limit development within several miles around the reservoir to protect the integrity of a major source of drinking water.

As the commission returned to Baltimore, Matthew J. Power, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning, summed up the tour’s lesson about the “interconnectedness” of environmental planning: “You can’t do land preservation planning without looking at land use. You can’t do drinking water planning without looking at land use. You can’t plan for wastewater without looking at land use. You can’t do transportation planning without it. And at the same time, all those things are regionally dependant and connected with one another.”