Jane E. Kessner
Walt Whitman High School
Debating Density: Revitalizing Washington with Concentrated Building
On a typical Saturday morning at around 6:45 am, I look out of a passenger’s seat window as houses become further apart from one another and strip malls replace town centers. Unfortunately for me, despite the fact that there are a seemingly infinite number of Dunkin’ Donuts stores on the side of the road, this is not a dream and even as a teenager, I am actually awake at this hour on a Saturday. After another hour or so of highway driving, I enter a high school in Virginia and spend the day debating about economics and politics with other high school speech and debate competitors. But as we learn to deal with tomorrow’s problems, the very area in which we are debating has suffered from the economic crisis.
Relative to other cities, the Washington Area is faring well in the current economic climate. Neither unemployment nor poverty is as prevalent as in other major cities. Still, some parts of the Washington Area have resisted economic harms with more success than have others.
In recent years, much of the housing focus has been on developing the outer ring, and while there have been notable successes, this has empirically resulted in economic disaster as the housing crisis hit these areas the worst. But hope for development is far from lost as there are substantial numbers of re-developable inner-ring properties. The inner core (within roughly ten to 25 miles of D.C.) is still very much vital. Instead of continuing to build in outer suburbs and walking into another housing crisis, new development should be concentrated in these areas close to Washington D.C. that are prepared for growth and success. Specifically, the technology sector should work together with real-estate companies, the Chamber of Commerce, and local government to encourage that housing and office building growth is more focused in the inner suburban belt rather than the outer belt.
Shifting the focus of building from scope to density would be a fantastic way for companies to overcome economic challenges. If companies shift headquarters to D.C. or the inner suburbs, employees will have incentives to move closer so there will be no need to build entirely new developments that have already fueled housing market collapse. While the benefits for individual companies may be indirect, the negative economic impact of the last housing crisis was felt profoundly by companies of all types and sizes. Preventing another such disaster is clearly a long term strategy for success and overall economic health.
This strategy would be especially beneficial for builders and real-estate companies, and well as for the technology sector. Increased density housing closer to Washington D.C. will fill a key niche in the housing market: young professionals. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently named D.C. as the number one next youth-magnet city, tied with Seattle.1 By redeveloping urban and suburban communities, builders and real-estate companies can ensure that the masses of young people flocking to the nation’s capital have homes near their jobs and the excitement of the city while gaining much-needed revenue. At the same time, the thriving technology sector (located largely in the inner belt of the Washington Area) can benefit from new young workers who can provide new insights and ideas in an ever-changing field. Technology companies can contribute to the effort by subsidizing employees who live in D.C.’s inner periphery. Such efforts will allow the technology sector, which is already poised for growth, to capitalize on the influx of new workers.
Some innovative companies have already begun to shift towards high-density building projects. At one point, Kettler, the largest land developer in the metropolitan area, was focusing on large-scale outer suburban building. In the last ten years, Kettler has changed its focus to multi-family housing and denser development in the inner suburbs. Kettler has been successful precisely because there is a demand for housing closer in to Washington D.C. Young people are coming to the area who do not want to live an hour outside of the city in McMansions. If Kettler and like-minded companies work with the government to obtain permission for rezoning, they can ensure economic success for themselves and for the Washington Area as a whole.
The advantages of high-density building in the inner suburbs are not limited to extra dollars. By taking part in this strategy, companies can act responsibly as stewards of the environment. Many of our country’s economic challenges are intertwined with environmental issues, such as our dependence on foreign oil and overuse of natural resources. While the idea of dense development might initially evoke images of smog and pollution, high-density building and environmental preservation go hand in hand. Many European countries have made smaller environmental footprints than the U.S. for this precise reason. The view from a flight over Europe would typically show concentrated cities with a few nearby suburbs, and, in between the cities, large swaths of mostly empty land or farms. Focusing building in smaller areas would prevent us from exploiting large tracts of new land, and in turn, would preserve more resources for future generations. Such a focus would also greatly reduce our dependence on oil in the Washington Area. One of the greatest threats to America is that we are so incredibly dependent on oil, driving, and spreading out our land use. If more workers live in a concentrated area, we can better utilize public transportation and reduce the demand for gas-guzzling individual vehicles. In an area with one of the longest average commutes in the nation, concentrated development would slow the cycle of pollution along with giving every busy Washington Area resident a few extra minutes of precious morning shut-eye.
In the wake of what has been called the largest economic recession since the Great Depression, the economic challenges facing the U.S. are formidable. We need to compete with the rest of the world technologically, sustain economic growth, and reduce our environmental impact. Prospects for recovery look especially bright in the Washington Area, but as we go into recovery, we shouldn’t repeat our mistakes but should consider creative redevelopment of the communities we already have. Maybe then, the Washington Area can regain the economic vibrancy it had before the recession, and maybe then, I can wake up at 7:30 am on Saturdays and have slightly shorter commutes to debate tournaments. The benefits to companies, the economy, and the environment of the Washington area are un-debatable.
1. Sue Shellenbarger. “The Next Youth-Magnet Cities.” Wall Street Journal. September 30, 2009.