Things I’ve Worked On: What Makes DC a Great City? Part 3

Broadly speaking, there are two main factors that shape the attractiveness of a city, the physical environment and the economic environment. Of course, these two factors have different levels of importance. It is likely that economics is a far more important determinant of a city’s success than physical layout. And in fact, the physical environment depends heavily on economics, because capital is needed to make a place exist and function. Still, there are aspects of the physical world that exist on their own, such as those arising from strong-handed planning and zoning decisions. What’s more, the physical layout can influence economy, e.g., as a means for attracting or discouraging talent. I point to my hometown of Detroit as one example. Decades of car-scale planning decisions have made it less than desirable for young urbanites today (like me, unfortunately).

The point I am trying to make is that both aspects are worth considering when looking at the determinants of success of a city. Thus, there are two corresponding narratives that need to be discussed with regard to DC.

(1) Economic DC, the pinnacle of stability

The graph below shows unemployment rates (in January) over the last decade based on data from BLS. Although rudimentary, it is clear that Washington weathered the economic crisis far better than the other cities. Stability is the name of the game in DC.


Of course, the story most of us know is that the stability of DC has a lot to do with it being home to the federal government (and adjacent organizations), which runs rain or shine. But other factors seem to be in play as well. I was talking to someone who works in DC real estate, and I asked him how it compared to other major cities. He brought up an interesting point: no one is going to add a ton of square footage for the market to absorb due to building height restrictions, which have been in place since 1910. That is, there is only so much space a developer can add with a new building in DC for the market to absorb. DC is designed to not be boom and bust. We can of course compare this situation to a place like Chicago. The particularities of DC add up to an economy built for steady, long-term growth.

(2) Physical DC, a series of very interesting (lucky?) decisions

Physically speaking, many unique forces appear to be at work in DC. I don’t want to explore this rabbit hole extensively because this entry was intended to be short and sweet, so here are just a number of educated guesses as to why DC is such a walkable and transit-friendly (considering its size and that it’s in the United States) city.

(a) The federal government keeps businesses comparatively centralized in a world of increasing polycentrism (i.e., multiple economic and commercial hubs, particularly at the urban fringe).

(b) The planned nature of the city, established in 1791, before the birth of the automobile, means the city grid is pedestrian friendly.

(c) Height restrictions keep the city at a pedestrian scale and generally livable, in the tradition of Jane Jacobs.

(d) The terrible road system (and pedestrian-friendly scale), as established by the L’Enfant Plan and height restrictions, has sent more people to transit and transit-accessible housing.

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