Growing a Smarter Region

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

August 1, 1999

For years, the Washington region has been talking about growth. While most people know how growth affects them individually—traffic snarls, classrooms in temporary trailers—there is less of a sense of growth’s impact on the region as an inter-related whole. The Brookings Institution has released a report on how our region is growing, and the trends that have emerged during the past few years.

There is a lot of good news: The greater Washington region is enjoying economic growth and steady prosperity. The median household income in this region is $57,200. Companies and small businesses created 56,700 new jobs in 1997, 66,100 new jobs in 1998, and are expected to create 82,000 this year. But the region has grown in a problematic way—and the problems are not just the well-recognized and much-discussed ones of congestion and loss of open space. This area is divided in complicated ways by race, class, and economic and educational opportunity.

Issues such as traffic congestion, school overcrowding and loss of open space are now forcing policy changes. The State of Maryland has defined and implemented smart growth policies. Individual counties in Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia have taken steps to manage growth, imposing impact fees and even moratoriums on development in communities already struggling with overcrowded schools. However, these laudable efforts have not addressed the full range of forces that shape our region’s patterns of growth and opportunity.

Growth is not going to go away. This region will continue to gain jobs and people and consume more land. If our regional divisions widen as growth proceeds, it will be difficult if not impossible, to create a region that is competitive, prosperous and livable

A dividing line runs along 16th Street NW in the District, and along I-95 in Maryland and Virginia. For the most part, middle- and upper-income families, substantial public and private sector investment, and economic expansion are found on the west side of this line, while lower-income families, most people of color, and little or no job growth are found on the east side of this divide.

At the end of 1996, 45 percent of the region’s poor families lived in the District, as did 64 percent of the region’s welfare recipients. Thus, the District bears a disproportionate burden of poverty. But the division is more complicated than the traditional “city vs. suburb” split. Statistics on school lunch programs reveal that there are substantial concentrations of low-income families in many suburbs east of the regional dividing line. Forty-three percent of the public school students in Arlington, and 41 percent of public school pupils in Prince George’s County, were eligible for federal lunch subsidies.

In some cases, the divide cuts right through communities, so that a single jurisdiction can be, paradoxically, both prosperous and troubled. The District has both more jobs and more welfare recipients than any other jurisdiction, high rates of home sales, and high rates of unemployment. Prince George’s County has a very low poverty rate, but many families are earning less than the region’s median income.

Fortunately, this region does not have to bail out a failed central city. The District, despite its challenges, is a city with traction in the new economy. The regional economy is diverse and globally competitive. Poverty is not as severe or as concentrated here as in other metropolitan areas. The divisions in this region are serious, but not so deep that the strong economy cannot lessen them. The area has a low degree of local fragmentation.

To bridge this divide, our region needs to grow smarter. We need to make decisions based on current information about the region. We need to recognize that issues such as traffic congestion and affordable housing and school quality are linked. And finally, we need to reach across jurisdictions, connecting the lack of growth in Prince George’s County, for example, to hyper growth in Loudoun County.

The problems of explosive growth in one half of the region and little growth in the other are inextricably linked, and must be solved together.