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Urbanism—it's spreading! (Fairfax County Planning Commission)

In my column this week, I didn’t mean to ask the question—as David Alpert framed it—“walkable urbanism: good or bad for D.C.?” I really meant to ask, as the subheadline states, “what does it mean for D.C.?”

That may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction: Asking whether something that is happening whether you like it or not is good or bad for something else isn’t particularly useful. Rather, given that the worst of D.C.’s car-dependent suburbs is working to copy some of D.C.’s most attractive elements, and given that D.C. is at a structural disadvantage to surrounding jurisdictions as far as its tax base is concerned, it’s worthwhile to think about whether D.C. needs to adapt to retain enough of those residents and businesses who might opt for the relatively cheap exurbs when they become “urban enough.”

The answers aren’t rocket science. They’re the same things that D.C. has been working on for decades: Strengthening the educational system. Fighting crime. Preserving affordable housing. Fostering local business. Capitalizing on the things the District has—history, grace, organic communities—that nowhere else can claim.

David’s right that having jobs at the end of a metro line is better than having them out on some highway, and that a robust and far-reaching metro system relieves traffic and makes the District more attractive. But D.C. isn’t like other major metropolitan areas, like New York City, that benefit from the revenues that accrue to surrounding counties via a state budget. Because of D.C.’s status as a city-state, every business or resident that locates on the other side of the district line equals a loss of revenue that we need to invest in underserved areas.

So, the expansion of walkable urbanism—clearly a universal good. Just one that the District needs to keep in mind when shaping its own future.