Mobility 2050/Retrofitting Suburbia

In the mid-twentieth century, the United States saw a departure of middle-and-upper class urban dwellers from city centers as they moved into developing suburban communities. This was driven in large part by the baby boom and the American ideal of quiet neighborhoods, spacious properties, white picket fences, and room for a family. Along with this demographic shift came increasing rates of car ownership; long commutes to-and-from work became the norm. It is standard to travel at least 15 minutes to access schools, grocery stores, entertainment centers, etc.

But the era of unsustainable growth in suburbia is coming to a close. 29% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to transportation in the U.S. and suburban dwellers are three times more responsible for those emissions than urbanites [1]. Furthermore, intensifying impacts of climate change are influencing people’s lifestyle choices. There is a societal trend towards living in denser communities, whether that be for reasons of land stewardship, decreased birth rates, or the aging population. By 2050, 75-85% of suburban homes will not have children in them [2]. Therefore, there is huge potential and necessity in reimagining our nation’s suburbs, particularly those of Northern Virginia (NOVA) which will have a population of three million by 2050 [3]. The question is, with that pressure, will NOVA build up or out? By studying existing trends in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax County, VA, strategies to retrofit suburbia become apparent and inform a 2050 projection of suburbia in NOVA. Resilient, attractive, and sustainable suburbs require reformed zoning codes, increased county connectivity and micromobility, repurposed and refurbished building complexes, and wetland and green space reconstruction.

In Northern Virginia, Arlington County has been a bastion of positive dense development both on the commercial and residential front. It’s America’s fourth-smallest county in terms of land size, but is home to 227 thousand people, and over 40 million square feet of office space - more than that of urban areas such as downtown Denver and Dallas [4]. Even though the population has doubled since the 1970s, traffic regarding the number of cars on the road in the county has actually decreased. City council beginning in the 60s-70s played a major role in creating such dense development through fighting federal roadway expansion projects and welcoming public transportation from across the river in D.C. First, the county pressured the federal government from expanding Interstate 66 right through the middle of Rosslyn, and instead vouching for the present-day route around the edge of Arlington County along the edge of the Potomac River, which is also far more scenic. Secondly, the county invested heavily in the creation of deep underground excavation and construction of seven metro stations located right beneath the heart of Arlington. Lastly, the city chose to juxtapose themselves from Washington D.C. with its strict building height limits and encouraged vertical construction and multi-family apartment and townhomes. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor at just two square miles in size added over 15 million square feet of office space and 15 thousand residential units from 1970-2000, allowing for walkable and sustainable urban lifestyles to flourish. This strategy of development mitigates sprawl and the environmental impacts of auto-centric development and supports public transportation [5]. Furthermore, it helps lower levels of obesity and heart disease, and allows for more impromptu social interaction, proximity to businesses and entertainment, and shared green spaces to help physical and mental health. Arlington is a true success story in achieving our vision for retrofitting suburbia- creating a suburb in which geography is used efficiently, public transportation, biking, and walking are heavily promoted, and there is much mixed-use development between residential, commercial, and office space.

Beyond transit-oriented development is the refurbishment of unused buildings in Northern Virginia. The Inova Alexandria Hospital project [6] in western Alexandria, VA was constructed on the remains of the now demolished Landmark Mall. Alongside a hospital and a few other specialty buildings, the project features a mixed use, urban style community with retail space, apartment buildings, townhomes, and a regional bus transit connection. Unlike the mall, its predecessor, this project features no surface parking lots and instead opts for a single parking garage and street parking. This project, which is projected to be complete in 2028, shows how the future of NOVA suburbia will continue to move away from low density, single use, car-oriented zoning and towards compact, mixed use, transit connected developments.

A style of projects known as road diets restripe and sometimes add concrete features to decrease the number of lanes on roadways with too much capacity. Other features of road diets include new bike lanes, increased width of sidewalks, and traffic calming features such as widened curbs or medians at intersections. A typical road diet is the change from a four-lane road to a two-lane road with a turning lane and bike lanes, and one of many examples in northern Virginia is Soapstone Drive in Reston. "Dropping in" on Google Maps shows that the road in 2009 around the 2300 block followed a typical road diet design: 4 lanes and parking. The same location today has the typical road diet design: two travel lanes, a turning lane, bike lanes in both directions, parking, and a new sidewalk. Ohlms, Dougald, and MacKnight (2020) performed an analysis [7] of the efficacy of Virginia road diets, including Soapstone Drive, through the Virginia Transportation Research Council. They noted a 70% decrease in crashes while travel times remain the same. 47% of survey respondents indicate they cycle more on Soapstone Drive, and 69% perceive the road to be safer than before. Given the prevalence of road diets in NOVA, their technical success, and their popularity with locals, we expect to see more of these projects in the future.

In March 2023, significant updates and declarations regarding zoning reform approaches were issued by both the Virginia Supreme Court and various counties. The Arlington County Board voted unanimously to allow multifamily structures (up to six units) in neighborhoods that were previously designated as R-20, 10, 10T, 8, 6, and 5 (single-family, detached homes). They also expanded the maximum lot coverage and varied parking requirements based on transit proximity [8]. In Fairfax County, the Zoning Ordinance Modernization Project (zMOD) aims to correct inconsistencies in codes and promote user engagement by utilizing graphs, tables, and formats that are compatible with phones and tablets [9]. Fairfax County adopted the zMOD initiative in 2021, but the Virginia Supreme Court overturned it in March 2023 due to insufficient improvements in zoning functionality. That being said, both Arlington's zoning reform and the zMOD project in Fairfax County exemplify a surge in civilian involvement concerning zoning codes. They reflect a broader trend towards the densification of residential properties and inform a 2050 projection of Northern Virginia’s zoning reform.

Solutions to retrofitting suburbia extend beyond urban contexts. Restoring natural environments is a crucial component of giving suburbs a face lift. As developers took over increasing amounts of land in the mid-twentieth century, wetlands and green spaces were paved over for the sake of parking lots and mall complexes. This trend has left suburbs vulnerable to increased flooding amid intensified storm events. In the late 1980s in Fairfax County, VA, Huntley Meadows Park wetlands suffered from silt pollution due to encroaching suburban expansion and construction [10]. Consequently, the drying out of these wetlands drove away beavers, resulting in a further drop in water levels in the absence of their dams. This vacuum enabled invasive plant species to disrupt the ecological balance. When a restoration project aimed at regulating water levels was initiated in 2013, beavers returned and transformed the wetland into a recreational area and effective stormwater management system. This success story underscores the potential for suburban revitalization by integrating nature-centric solutions into the fabric of these communities.

Critics of the trends exemplified by these case studies fear a forced change in their lifestyle. Many people want to live in a cul-de-sac and drive everywhere. When activists talk about a dense, multimodal-oriented future, suburbanites envision their neighborhoods becoming targets for teardowns. The reality of the future is that no one is tearing down million-dollar homes in NOVA to build five other ones. Instead, zoning reforms will permit the construction of secondary and tertiary housing units on properties that were previously designated for single-family detached homes. This presents a revenue opportunity for current suburban residents. Furthermore, underutilized sites and transportation features will be revitalized, and NOVA residents will have more mobility choices than driving.

There are a number of structural roadblocks to being able to achieve our goals and vision for suburban redevelopment. Zoning reforms and other legislative changes require persuading the minds of city, state, and federal government leaders, and there are many "big money" interests that may fight these changes. Redevelopment of abandoned infrastructure requires landowners to be willing to sell their properties. The repurposing of mall spaces requires that owners accept changes to the layout and uses of their malls. There is an imperative for strong grassroots organizing and civic leadership in order to lead the charge on these matters and to overcome institutional roadblocks[11]. Lastly, redevelopment requires property owners to be risk averse. Localities with an already shrinking population and economy may be against redevelopment all-together, as there is no real demand for revitalizing the area.

Like all civil and urban planning matters, the challenge of meeting the interests of all stakeholders is a great one. But regardless, there is a strong imperative for the revitalization of these regions. Case studies in Northern Virginia unveil strategies for densifying mid-twentieth century sprawl. Examining these approaches paints a picture of NOVA’s evolution by the year 2050 into an ecologically balanced, densely organized landscape. Anticipated zoning amendments aim to develop multifamily residences and mixed-use complexes while limiting parking availability in areas that boast convenient access to high-quality public transit. Increased investment in rail and shared mobility by VDOT and transportation authorities will reduce car dependence. Dieting roadways will prompt commuter choice diversity. Moreover, the development of extensive trail networks among cul-de-sacs and meandering streets, combined with the establishment of localized urban centers, can boost the adoption of micromobility. Repurposed office spaces, parking lots, and malls can be transformed into vibrant, functional urban hubs. Challenges like the heat island effect and severe storms require natural revitalization, converting paved areas into green spaces and wetlands. Analyzing NOVA's changing landscape illuminates the path to resilient suburbia.

  1. Diep, Francie (2014-01-08). "Suburbia's Carbon Footprint Is Four Times The Size Of Urban Residents', Study Finds". Popular Science. Retrieved 2023-12-07.
  2. Dunham-Jones, Ellen (2010-06-29), Retrofitting suburbia, retrieved 2023-12-07
  3. Northern Virginia Regional Commission (2023-11-03). "Demographics and Economics of Northern Virginia". Northern Virginia Regional Commission. https://www.novaregiondashboard.com/reports. 
  4. Barrie, Thomas (2023). "Zoning Reform and Housing Choices". Affordable Housing + Sustainable Communities Initiative at North Carolina State University.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. Grabar, Henry (July 6, 2014). "The suburb of the future is here". Salon.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  6. "Construction on proposed Inova Alexandria Hospital campus could begin as early as next year". wusa9.com. March 20, 2023. Retrieved 2023-12-06.
  7. Ohlms, Peter B.; Dougald, Lance E.; MacKnight, Hannah E (2020-04-01). Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC) (ed.). "How's That Diet Working: Performance of Virginia Road Diets". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  8. "BREAKING: Arlington County Board approves 'Missing Middle' zoning changes | ARLnow.com". ARLnow.com | Arlington, Va. local news. 2023-03-22. Retrieved 2023-12-07.
  9. "zMOD - Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance Modernization Project | Planning Development". www.fairfaxcounty.gov. Retrieved 2023-12-07.
  10. "Huntley Meadows Wetland Restoration | Park Authority". www.fairfaxcounty.gov. Retrieved 2023-12-07.
  11. Norris, Matt (March 20, 2023). "Reshaping the City: Zoning for a More Equitable, Resilient, and Sustainable Future". Urban Land.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)