Don’t Mistake Development for a City


I’ve written before about a phenomenon here in my home region, the Washington, DC, area, that you might call an “inverted density curve.” The “normal” density curve would look like one of those Missing Middle Housing charts: Starting with an urban core or downtown, with density gradually decreasing as you get further out. At the very edge, you’d expect to see larger, detached houses on relatively large lots, in an area that was recently countryside but is now exurban. Whether or not it actually makes sense to build that far away from transit or jobs, on a fragile, spread-out, infrastructure-heavy pattern (it doesn’t), that has been the pattern for a long time, and it’s a pretty familiar one.

An “inverted density curve,” on the other hand, proceeds mostly normally until you reach that exurban edge, or maybe the “middle” suburbs, where instead of the density tapering off, you’ll find a lot of new, dense, mixed-use construction going up. The common idea that you live near the city for people and energy and you move far away for large houses and privacy is breaking down, in my region and in other high-growth regions where jobs and population growth have outstripped housing supply.

This phenomenon is no doubt complicated and multifaceted, but it also obviously has a lot to do with the fact that inner suburbs—once the former countryside themselves—were built at relatively low densities, and now most of their land area is locked up under rigid zoning codes. Such codes, along with the attitude that nothing should ever change (or, in Strong Towns language, that suburbs are meant to be built all at once and then left in that exact state), do not really stop growth.

But they do two things: force new development further out than the market would naturally put it, and create sky-high home prices by inducing a mismatch between the “real” land value and the intensity of what’s allowed on that land. What happens is that apartments, townhomes, and mixed-use centers end up sprouting up in former fields way out at the metro edge, and that those who want something approaching dense, urban living have relatively few choices in between the urban core and the exurban edge.

I’ve written about this mostly in Maryland’s DC suburbs—here, for example, looking at a new town-center development along the I-270 corridor northwest of DC—and I’ve seen it in middle or outer suburbs in both Maryland and Virginia, such as Rockville or Fairfax.

Gainesville: A Case Study

All of this to introduce one of the most dramatic examples I’ve seen yet, out in Gainesville, Virginia. Gainesville is southwest of DC on Interstate 66, along a corridor seeing major new construction. It is not in Fairfax or Loudoun, but in Prince William County. Parts of this county, like Manassass and Woodbridge, have been heavily developed for a long time. But most of the development in the Gainesville area is relatively recent (and further stimulated by a major expansion of I-66).

First of all, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a dramatic juxtaposition of the immediate land use and the surrounding area. I’ll start with the surrounding area. Here is the satellite view of the area I explored, with the three developments I visited roughly in the middle, along U.S. Route 29:

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