EconDev home

last modified: Monday, December 12, 2005 12:11 PM

Smart Growth & Washington DC metro area

Rebecca Gordon



Smart Growth has emerged as a dominant solution to combat urban sprawl, the expansive and reckless growth of an urban area.  It is a comprehensive development strategy that focuses on the environment, health, transportation, and housing in order to maximize a community’s quality of life.  Bethesda, Maryland and Pentagon City, Virginia are two examples of development projects in the metropolitan DC area which have successfully utilized smart growth principles.  I intend to give brief community profiles of both of these areas and to illustrate how these towns represent smart growth development.

Overview of Smart Growth

“Smart Growth” is a clever phrase because not only does it immediately garner attention, it also implies that the opposition must be favoring “Dumb Growth” by default.  In 1997, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening introduced the "Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Initiative," to increase the involvement of the state government in local land use decisions.  Instead of relying on regulations to control development patterns, Glendening focused his attention on using financial incentives to shape the decisions of Maryland’s local governments.[1]

The Smart Growth plan is designed to save taxpayers millions of dollars by devoting state funds to areas with established infrastructure systems.[2]  Supporters argue that financial investments devoted to curtailing urban sprawl will have a higher return if they are used to revitalize existing communities instead of undeveloped areas.  By focusing on the restoration of communities, government officials could avoid consuming additional farmland or open space to cope with population growth.[3]  Moreover, building a compact community with walkable neighborhoods and multiple transportation options will have positive environmental impacts by reducing residents’ dependence on cars. 

Bethesda, MD

In 1993, an extensive development project was launched to give a suburban commuter town a vibrant cultural identity.[4]  Bethesda, located just six miles from Washington DC, has transformed itself into a popular destination by offering numerous shops and diverse restaurant choices in a charming downtown area.  It has successfully attracted young people as well as families by boasting modern entertainment within a residential environment.  As a result, housing demand has skyrocketed with the current median housing price at $400,000.[5]

Accessed at, 2005

Pentagon City, VA

Pentagon City is located right across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia within view of the Pentagon. With more than 3,400 residential units, 665 luxury hotel rooms, and a shopping mall which includes 300,000 square feet of retail, Pentagon City has become a fashionable shopping and dining location.[6]  The Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development projects the population of Pentagon City in 2010 will be double the population in 2000 which has spurred countless residential development projects. 

Accessed at, 2005

Metropolitan DC and its Relationship to Smart Growth

The Smart Growth Network was formed in 1996 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency along with several non-profit and government organizations (see for more information).  They have defined the following principles as being essential to Smart Growth Development:

Fostering Distinctive, Attractive Communities

In the past ten years, developers in metropolitan Washington DC have made a concerted effort to repackage suburban communities into urban villages.  Both Bethesda and Pentagon City boast amenities ranging from high quality restaurants, to multiple shops, to arts and entertainment events. [7]  More and more, residents of northern Virginia and Maryland prefer the nightlife options in their neighborhood over traveling into DC.  With an assortment of housing, food, and shopping alternatives, city planners have successfully given these areas an identity.

Direct Development to Existing Communities

Investments into Bethesda and Pentagon City have been lucrative chiefly because both locales are connected to the metro transit system.  These areas were already popular residential suburbs for commuters traveling into Washington DC, so planners saw the opportunity to take advantage of this infrastructure.  Developers wanted both areas to have a downtown feel and thus created “Bethesda Row” and “Pentagon Row,” the main streets for shopping and restaurants.  These areas soon became home to grocery stores, movie theaters, gyms, and even an ice-rink in Pentagon City.  As Smart Growth envisioned, people are able to walk around in this one-stop destination environment to purchase commodities, grab coffee with friends, and to use the many other services provided. 


Smart Growth also advocates diversifying transportation options which decreases congestion and the reliance on automobiles.[3]  Both Pentagon City and Bethesda have multiple bus routes, a metro stop, as well as bike paths that are even connected to Washington DC.  Visitors can arrive by metro or by bus, while residents can make use of nearby paths for walking, rollerblading, or biking. 


The Environmental Protection Agency states that the environmental benefits of Smart Growth are improved air and water quality, greater preservation of critical habitat and open space, and more clean up and re-use of brownfield sites.[9]  Bethesda and Pentagon City are dense development projects which decrease the need for automobiles and thus decrease auto-emissions and greenhouse gases.  A New Jersey study (Center for Urban Policy Research) found that compact development would produce 40% less water pollution than more dispersed development patterns.[8]


Smart Growth promoters believe there should be a range of housing options that are affordable and accessible.[9]  Residents of Bethesda or Pentagon City include college students, young professionals, families, and retirees, and the housing developments in both areas reflect this diversity.  Currently, new high-rise apartment complexes are being constructed to provide accessibility to the amenities offered by the downtown areas.   However, with increasing demand to live in these communities, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission admits that the lack of affordable housing is becoming a problem.[10] 

Popular Criticisms of Smart Growth

● By focusing on the escalating growth of urban areas, urban planners have further increased the cost of urban living.[11]  According to the 2000 census, 25% of renters and 17% of homeowners in the DC metro area spend more than 35% of their income on rent and mortgage payments, respectively.[12]

● Offering alternative modes of transportation such as biking and walking is not enough to counter the increase in traffic congestion caused by a rising population density.  According to the Texas Transportation Institute, in 2003 the commute into DC is the third worst in the country.[12]

● Property rights activists contend that the government should not intrude on consumer’s preferences since it is unrealistic to assume that consumers strictly prefer urban environments.[13]


Supporters of Smart Growth encourage financial investment into an area which has the potential to offer a strong community environment.  This is measured by accessible facilities and services, an array of amenities, and multiple housing and transportation options.  Bethesda and Pentagon City were ideal locations to develop on account of their existing infrastructure and metro accessibility.  They exemplify Smart Growth since they are high-density residential and commercial environments which evoke a strong sense of identity and community.


[1] Frece, John W, "Twenty Lessons from Maryland's Smart Growth
Initiative, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol 6, 2004-2005.

[2] State of Maryland, Department of Planning, accessed at, 2005

[3] Smart Growth Online, A Service of the Smart Growth Network,
accessed at, 2005

[4] Congress for the New Urbanism, accessed at, 2005

[5] U.S. Bureau of Census, accessed at, 2005

[6] County of Arlington, Business Districts, accessed at, 2005

[7] Federal Realty Investment Trust, accessed at, 2005

[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accessed at, 2005

[9] Smart Growth American, accessed at, 2005

[10] Northern Virginia Regional Coalition, accessed at, 2005

[11] Freeman, Brandee, Shigley, Paul & William Fulton, "The Pros and
Cons of Smart Growth," written for Facsnet, accessed at

[12] Cox, Anna Marie, "Sprawl By Any Other Name," August 20, 2003,
accessed at

[13] Harris, Jack & Evans, Jennifer, "Sprawl Braw", Tierra Grande,
Vol. 7, No.2, 2000