Washington's Future: More Cobweb Than Wagon Wheel

(By Roger K Lewis For The Washington Post)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 5, 2009

What will metropolitan Washington look like 50 years from now?

Visualize a metropolis composed of many highly developed urban centers. Downtown D.C. would be but one among many urban nodes making up the metropolitan area.

We are well along this path. Many places in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs already are city-like, characterized by access to transit and a dense, diverse mix of uses -- housing, jobs, shopping and entertainment.

Metropolitan Washington is an archipelago of growing communities that are cities or near-cities: Arlington and Alexandria; Tysons Corner and Reston in Fairfax County; Bethesda and Silver Spring, both with downtowns, in Montgomery County. Wheaton is on the horizon for "citification," as are the New Carrollton and Largo areas in Prince George's County.

Indeed, in 50 years, referring to such places as suburbs will be a misnomer. In form and function, parts of Washington's 20th-century suburban landscape will become distinctly urban, not suburban, as we move through the 21st century. These places will be real cities, no less so than the District of Columbia.

This trend represents a clear paradigm shift.

Fifty years ago, planners generated the famous "wedges and corridors" master plan for the Washington metropolitan region. It envisioned the District as the hub from which transportation corridors -- think of them as spokes -- radiate into the surrounding counties and along which dense development would occur. The wedges of space between corridors would have low-density development, a combination of residential subdivisions and open space in the form of public parks and natural landscape.

The configuration of the Metro system was based on the "wedges and corridors" model. Likewise, the Capital Beltway was designed as a circle that would connect these transportation spokes radiating out from the District hub, while allowing interstate drivers to go around, rather than through, the District.

But this half-century-old planning model has been superseded. The evolving pattern of the future will be a lattice rather than a hub-and-spoke network, looking more like a cobweb than a wagon wheel.

A half-century ago, few foresaw the extent of population and job growth in Maryland and Virginia, or the adverse effects of sprawl. Few worried about real estate constraints in the District -- the shrinking supply of developable land and limits on the height of new buildings -- diluting its role in the region as the dominant downtown hub and center of employment. Such dominance is likely to continue to wane.

Fifty years ago, planners assumed that most residential development would be detached homes serving traditional nuclear families. Today's housing market is more diverse. Singles, groups of singles, elderly people and couples whose children are grown increasingly opt for dense, walkable neighborhoods accessible to transit and a broad range of urban amenities. Many now view urban areas, once deemed places from which to escape, as desirable places to live. Some willingly walk, ride bikes or use transit rather than driving, a behavioral shift that relieves traffic congestion and reduces carbon emissions.

Essential for shaping future growth and infrastructure development, today's planning establishes predictable frameworks guiding both public- and private-sector investments. Concerned with aesthetic as well as functional matters, framework master plans often include urban design and architectural guidelines.

In formulating new visions and making new plans, or amending old plans, for the next half-century, planners are armed with more enlightened planning principles and sophisticated methodologies. In light of shifting paradigms, they try to predict what could and should happen in coming decades.

Yet no matter how visionary and rigorously crafted new plans might be, one thing is as true today as 50 years ago: Some predictions will prove wrong.

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

© 2009 The Washington Post Company