Growth in Washington, District of Columbia

Growth in Washington, District of Columbia
Growth in Washington, District of Columbia

Our nation’s capital is part of an urban area that crosses state lines. This expansive urban area has experienced substantial growth in the past few decades, but different municipalities have managed growth in different ways, as these images indicate.

The Thematic Mapper on the Landsat 5 satellite acquired the top image on August 27, 1984, and the bottom image on August 22, 2011. Forests and fields appear in shades of green, and urban areas appear in shades of beige and tan. The most noticeable growth occurs around Dulles International Airport, where beige has overtaken green in many places.

Dulles International Airport straddles the border between two of Virginia’s fast-growing counties: Loudon in the Northwest, and Fairfax in the southeast. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. Census found, Fairfax County’s population grew 11.5 percent. Loudon County’s population grew 84.1 percent, making it the fastest-growing county in the state. South of the airport, bordering Loudon and Fairfax Counties, Prince William County experienced a population growth of 43.2 percent during the same time period.

To give an idea of the scale of development in this region, Tysons Corner was built on farmland in the 1960s. Located 13 miles (21 kilometers) from Washington, Tysons Corner was conceived as an “edge city” on the outskirts of town. Designed for an automobile-rich society intent on shopping, its malls boasted something like 167,000 parking spaces. Now the urban area has grown far past it, and developed areas extend beyond the airport.

West of Washington, and north of Tysons Corner, the Potomac River separates northern Virginia from Maryland. North of the river lies Maryland’s Montgomery County. Around the time that developers built Tysons Corner, officials in Montgomery County also designed a community, but instead of cars and shopping malls, it was based on a concept known as “wedges and corridors.”

A plan adopted in 1964 aimed to concentrate commercial and residential development along transportation corridors, and leave the wedges between these corridors open with undeveloped land. A 2002 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University described Montgomery County’s plan as “one of the most sophisticated systems of growth management in the United States.” The different approach to growth management can be seen around Rockville, where urbanized areas did not expand so substantially between 1984 and 2011.

Although its growth did not match that of Loudon or Prince William Counties in Virginia, Montgomery County did experience growth comparable to that of Fairfax. Based on estimates from October 2009, Montgomery County’s population grew 11.3 percent between 2000 and 2010, and it was Maryland’s most populous county.

Images courtesy the Landsat Program, Goddard Space Flight Center. Caption by Michon Scott.

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