Greater Greater Washington


Then and now: Dulles sprawl

NASA's Earth Observatory site shows how sprawl in the Dulles Airport area has grown through a comparison of 2 satellite images, one from 1984 and one from 2011.

Drag the slider all the way to the left to see the changes around Dulles, the starkest difference between the two.

The NASA page notes:

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. ...

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.

Thanks to Geoff Hatchard and Heather Goss for the tip.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 


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But if we build those two silver line stations then the developers will win!


I think the comment about tysons is the most salient. Human behavior/development patterns will eventually go back to something resembling what it always has, making it hard for any utopian city based on something other than our two feet eventually devolve into a traffic mess. We should accept this rather than assuming that it can be ignored/designed out.

by drumz on Jul 10, 2012 11:44 am • linkreport

I think one mistake that you guys are making is that this area is becoming a business, leasure and residential hub all in itself. You can live in Herndon, work along the Dulles tech corridor, and shop, eat and play at Reston Town Center. Many of these people do not go to DC more than a few times a year.

by NoVa on Jul 10, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

With Loundon becoming part of the Metro map I believe they will only generate more business for the county. Now I think Prince William need to find some way for them to be included on the Metro map. If they dont they could end up losing opportunities of jobs coming down there. If they join this will complete all of the important surburb counties in the DMV to have the metro....

by Quentin on Jul 10, 2012 12:15 pm • linkreport

The different approach to growth management can be seen around Rockville, where urbanized areas did not expand so substantially between 1984 and 2011.

Really now. I guess you haven't been to Germantown and Gaitherburg, etc. These areas were also farmland, and have recently been paved over.

by goldfish on Jul 10, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

One of the biggest reasons for the growth near Dulles Airport is the establishment of two special commercial tax districts (one by Fairfax and the other by Loudoun) to fund 75% of the costs for widening Route 28 and replacing intersections with interchanges. Commercial landowners received better transportation, higher density and protection against down-zoning in exchange for their higher taxes. These tax districts are generally regarded as quite successful in achieving their stated goals. They were established between the two photo shots.

by tmtfairfax on Jul 10, 2012 12:22 pm • linkreport


That's pretty much the classic definition of an edge city.

Residents of the area might not need to visit DC regularly, but the area still developed in a sprawling land intensive way.

by alex on Jul 10, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport


LouCo got Metro because of Dulles. What reason does Metro have to connect to PWC? Potomac Mills?

People have to stop thinking Metro is the only answer.

by Billy Bob on Jul 10, 2012 12:32 pm • linkreport


I totally agree. I think it's acceptable for suburban areas to have some autonomy (in that you can live, work and shop there without having to go into DC) because they contribute to a regional economy and a rising tide lifts all boats. But Loudoun and Fairfax counties probably could've done that without gobbling up so much land.

I'm not clear how much of Loudoun is left for de
Yeah, upper Montgomery County has seen a lot of development since the 1980's, but it would've been a lot worse without the Ag Reserve, which cordoned off 1/3 of the county from development and will hopefully encourage more efficient use of the land that's left.

by dan reed! on Jul 10, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

@ Billy Bob

Your statement is correct but i have to disagree. The two stops in LoCo is kinda like commuter stops; so with that being said Potomac Milss could be the same thing. This would help traffic down 95 during major holiday seasons and busy travel weekend when people want to go towards the area. I believe Metro should connect to Potomac Mills. Its a large shopping area where it can only be reached via car. Since the VRE isnt running on weekend Metro is the only way via public transportion. But this can also spur development for the county as well. I just think it will be a winning situation for PWC.I live in Arlington and I dont drive but I would think this would be a good idea for people like myself.

by Quentin on Jul 10, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

I doubt much of the traffic clogging 95 at choke points on weekends or during holidays is commuter traffic, Quentin. Much of the traffic during the week is commuters though. It might be nice for someone in Arlington who doesn't drive, but I'm not sold on Metro going that far. More frequent VRE and better connections to those stations might be better for you. I would recommend buses, but I think it's often forgotten here that buses use the same roads as vehicles(let's not get into an argument over the initial purpose of the express lanes).

by selxic on Jul 10, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

what i've found interesting is you can see the forested areas (easier to see than anything else) disappear drastically in much of NOVA, while the forest and stream valleys in MoCo actually grew in scope over the course of the two images (yes development happened too). You could say everything grew in MoCo, only buildings grew in NOVA

by Gull on Jul 10, 2012 1:32 pm • linkreport

I don't believe Tyson's was "conceived as an 'edge city'". It was conceived as a shopping mall that later had an edge city grow up around it. Til Hazel saw an opportunity to make some money on a field, he didn't envision a new downtown.

by Juanita de Talmas on Jul 10, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

@selxic: There's a larger percentage of through traffic on 95 on the weekends/holidays, but I've noticed a significant difference in how 95 operates right around Prince William Pkwy, which suggests to me that north of Potomac Mills still has a very high percentage of local traffic even on weekends.

by Froggie on Jul 10, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

Again there is a problem with transit advocates sticking too much to the "no car" and "Metro is best" paradigm.

Dulles Corridor and Tysons are employment hubs, therefore Metro there while expensive can help focus development that is likely coming there anyways.

You can say the same thing (focus development) about PWC sure, but I doubt it's a good use of money to extend Metro just so we can reach Potomac Mills.

Also which holiday seasons are you talking about? I am willing to bet a good amount of people moving about on 95 aren't going into DC, but points further.

What PWC needs is better VRE service and a MUCH more robust bus service. Metro is not the solution for everyplace. I don't even think it's a real solution for the Route 1 corridor where I live.

Frankly any and all Metro fans need to be realists and stop pushing for expensive extentions. We have real problems in the core to deal with first. Plus Metro turning more and more into a commuter rail service only worsens it's use as a subway in town.

VRE and MARC are tools already in place, you should focus on improving THOSE first. Especially VRE. If it was expanded in service, you could have more TOD revolving around THOSE areas instead of blowing through a ton of money bringing Metro down to do the same thing.

by Billy Bob on Jul 10, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

Whas all the white stuff in the before pic? Snow?

by Anon69 on Jul 10, 2012 2:31 pm • linkreport

Agree generally with Billy Bob in that Metro extensions (after the Silver and Purple lines are completed) should not be planned until core capacity is increased in DC.

by watcher on Jul 10, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

Anon69 -- I bet the white stuff are clouds that wandered into the way of the satellite.

by Ciderbarrel on Jul 10, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

Will be interesting to see if the same happens in West Virginia within easy commute of the future Loudoun station's mega garages. Developers are certainly counting on it.

And Tysons/Reston is a major, maybe the major, jobs hub of Baltimore/Washington.

by Tom Coumaris on Jul 10, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

@Froggie: There is no doubt that significant traffic (especially during the day on weekends) is for the retail in Prince William, but what is seen during and after rush hour on the weekends is likely through traffic.

by selxic on Jul 10, 2012 4:24 pm • linkreport

To be fair...this picture doesn't include much of upper Montgomery County (places like Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Clarksburg) which have also been paved over at a very similar rate to communities in the Dulles Corridor. And the majority of development that Montgomery County 'prevented' through it's planning policies simply pushed further out to Frederick, Hagerstown and Martinsburg.

Also to note, a majority of jobs created in the DC area over the past 25 years have been in Northern Virginia, therefore creating a larger demand for more homes, supporting businesses, etc.

by AdMoJake on Jul 16, 2012 6:21 pm • linkreport

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