Building an optimistic future for D.C.


(Roger K. Lewis/Roger K. Lewis)
June 15, 2012

Obsessive hand-wringing over the misdeeds and criminal behavior of a few corrupt D.C. political leaders and public officials risks obscuring a much more important reality about the city. Today, Washington is a more attractive, vibrant, well-functioning city than it was only a few years ago. And I predict that Washington is destined to become a dynamic, truly world-class capital — not just a world capital— where people will eagerly live, work and visit.

If trends continue, the District — still a work in progress — could be home to a million people in a few decades. Many will reside in revitalized neighborhoods, including east of the Anacostia River, that will have become economically and socially stable, physically safe and amply serviced.

The trending evidence seems crystal clear, especially for those who have resided in Washington long enough to remember when so many parts of the city east of Rock Creek Park were deemed physically derelict and unsafe; when there were few decent restaurants; and when families were fleeing to the suburbs. Today, many once-derelict areas — U Street NW, 14th Street NW, Columbia Heights, Shaw, H Street NE, Capitol Hill, the Southeast Waterfront — have been transformed or are undergoing transformation.

Owing to ambitious, visionary public- and private-sector initiatives coupled with historically unique resources, D.C. as a whole will be a transformed city in a generation. It will possess an enviable array of civic, cultural, commercial and recreational opportunities and amenities — parks, museums, libraries, performance and entertainment venues, shopping destinations, sports facilities — unmatched by most American cities.

Today’s troubled D.C. primary and secondary educational system will have been substantially improved, in part because of steady growth in the number and quality of public charter schools. Indeed, every D.C. student may be attending a charter school in the not-too-distant future. Significant advances in teaching methodology, technology and resources, and in teacher quality and capability, will enhance the effectiveness of urban education.

The capital’s physical environment will be greatly improved because city agencies, public utility providers and private property owners will have taken measures to solve or alleviate current environmental problems, some of which are already being addressed.

The city’s systems for water treatment and distribution, sewage collection and treatment and storm water management will perform more effectively and sustainably. Polluted runoff into streams and rivers will decrease dramatically because of greatly increased storm water retention and filtration. This will be the result of new storm water storage structures being built by DC Water, more green roofs throughout the city, preserved parkland, vegetated urban open spaces and bioswales and the use of more pervious paving.

Public pressure will motivate Pepco and Washington Gas to continue upgrading their systems and customer services. Most notable in the coming decades will be new technologies and equipment enabling utility companies and consumers to better monitor, regulate and reduce energy consumption. This will further contribute to environmental health by reducing the city’s carbon footprint.

What about traffic in the future? For several reasons, I predict that city traffic congestion will be less than it is today.

Fewer commuter-driven cars will be on city streets because of increased availability and use of transit — heavy rail, light rail, buses, shuttles of various types and water taxis. Streetcars will again be a common sight in D.C., as well as in Arlington, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. And the use of bicycles will continue to increase.

Telecommuting and Internet-based work will grow, and many workers will spend only a few days each week at their workplace. The percentage of one-car and zero-car households will rise substantially, with greater reliance on rental cars. And many cars on D.C. streets will be small, electric powered or hybrid vehicles, further enhancing the city’s environmental quality by using little or no gasoline and eliminating carbon emissions.

Choosing to live near their workplaces, lots of people will more willingly walk greater distances. They will walk for exercise, but also because the urban pedestrian experience will be more visually interesting and attractive. City streets and sidewalks will be better lighted and landscaped, activated with places to shop, eat, sit and spectate.

All these urban enhancements and benefits promise to attract new businesses and new residents. They will keep coming despite high D.C. taxes and high real estate costs. And they will keep coming because of the city’s and region’s stable, relatively recession-resistant economy, fueled largely by the federal government but increasingly by private-sector investment and activity.

They also will come to Washington for non-economic reasons: a favorable, four-season climate, with spring and fall being exceptionally beautiful; countless parks, historic sites and natural landscapes; increasingly vibrant nightlife and excellent restaurants; an expanding, diverse cultural network rivaling New York’s; and a geographic location making Washington convenient for people traveling to and from anywhere on the planet.

Will recurring misbehavior by a few local politicians, so endemic to urban governance across the country, deter people from coming to or staying in D.C.? Not a chance. Fortunately, most citizens know that, for every corrupt politician, there are thousands of public servants doing their jobs honestly and diligently in the interest of making Washington a better city. This is why you should be optimistic about the future of America’s capital.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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