Ten Most Sprawl-Threatened Large Cities
Number Three: Washington, D.C.

The District of Columbia has steadily lost population since 1970, while the Maryland and Virginia suburbs have grown dramatically (60 percent from 1970 to 1990, and over 10 percent from 1990 to 1996.) The danger of this trend is reflected in loss of valuable open space, degradation of the environment and the decline of the District's urban core.

The outermost suburbs have experienced phenomenal growth. The population of Loudoun County, Virginia (30 miles northwest of D.C.), for example, expanded by 55 percent between 1990 and 1996, and another 7.7 percent from 1996 to 1997, making it the eighth fastest growing county (with more than 10,000) in the country. Here, as in other outer suburbs, open space is being rapidly gobbled up by commercial and residential structures, roads, parking lots and strip malls. The amount of open space lost to development in Loudoun County increased 88 percent between 1982 and 1992.

In recent years, a tremendous amount of open space has been claimed by residential housing. The Washington Post reported in late July that the housing stock grew about 35 percent faster than the population, according to new U.S. Census Bureau statistics. More building permits have been issued in the Washington/Baltimore region than anywhere else in the country.

The District of Columbia lost 26,000 jobs from 1980 to 1994, while the suburbs gained a net of 15,000 jobs despite federal downsizing. Today, three out of four new jobs are in the suburbs.

As people and jobs push out from the urban core, traffic gridlock has become the norm. A 1994 federal study ranked Washington, D.C., number one (ahead of Los Angeles) in the cost per person of wasted fuels and time spent stuck in traffic jams. Washington area commuters waste 71 hours a year in traffic congestion, ranking second-highest in the country.

The burden on the taxpayer mounts as communities struggle to meet the rising demand for public services. Prince George's County, Md., is facing a projected $4050 million gap, for example, and taxpayers in Prince William County, Va., spend an average of about $3,800 to provide services to a single household, but experience a $1,688 shortfall for every new house built.

Environmental consequences are also widespread. Runoff from farms and city streets as well as increased air pollution all contribute to degrading the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay. If growth rates remain steady, 20 percent of the large Occoquan watershed could be covered by buildings and parking lots by 2020, which would harm its natural ecosystems. Farmland lost to subdivisions could total 40,000 acres from 1996 to 2006.

Increasingly, Washington area residents are voicing their concerns about unfettered expansion in the region. According to a recent Washington Post poll, two-thirds of adults in rural areas south of the city want limits on construction of houses and malls. Eighty percent want mass transit to ease crowded roadways. Another sign of optimism is the formation of groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth which is promoting specific solutions to traffic congestion and suburban sprawl in the area.

A Tale of Two Counties

Consider two Virginia counties, roughly equal in size, the same distance from Washington D.C., and with the same percentage of commuting residents. Thirty years ago, both counties were rural; today - as a direct result of local government policies - these counties are vastly different.

  • Stafford County, with its aggressive economic development policies, has boomed. It now has eight times the population of Clarke County. But that growth comes at a price.

  • Stafford's real taxes are roughly 20 percent higher than Clarke County's. Its debt burden is four times that of Clarke County. Stafford is in the bottom third of all Virginia localities for per student educational expenditures. And per capita income is nearly 25 percent higher in Clarke County.

  • Clarke County, which has chosen slow growth and small scale development, not only has lower taxes than Stafford, it also has higher per student expenditures.

Clearly, government attitude and action are key to controlling sprawl.

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