The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Washington growing more at the center, less at the edges

After years of rapid population growth, greater Washington might be slowing down. However, the real story is where most regional growth is happening: in and around the Beltway, not on the fringe.

Revitalized inner-city and suburban communities lead regional growth. Photo by the author.

Yesterday, the Census Bureau released population estimates for the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metropolitan Statistical Area, which encompasses the District and 27 surrounding counties and independent cities in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

While the Washington Post focused on slightly slower population growth than in previous years, there are much more interesting trends occurring.

Regional growth is still among the highest in the nation

The Census Bureau estimates that the region had just over 5.8 million residents in 2012. If you include Greater Baltimore (the Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia Combined Statistical Area), the larger region has 8.6 million people, making it the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country, behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Greater Washington added 89,000 new residents between July 2011 and July 2012, which the Post notes is fewer people than we added the year before. It calls this the "twilight hour of a remarkable phase in the Washington region" during which Americans flocked to the area in search of jobs, adding to the area's population. Yet we've still had the fifth-largest increase in population of any metropolitan area in the country. We added more people than traditionally fast-growing Sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Phoenix.

Inside-the-Beltway communities among the nation's fastest-growing

Our region is also home to several of the nation's fastest-growing counties and independent cities, notably the District of Columbia, which after decades of population loss is now growing rapidly. It's now the 61st fastest-growing "county" in the United States, having grown by 5.1% and adding over 30,000 residents between 2010 and 2012.

The District now has 632,000 residents, about what it had during the 1980's. For the first time ever, Washington now has more people than Baltimore City, which has also started gaining residents for the first time in decades.

Joining the District on the list are several jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, including Arlington and Loudoun counties and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fredericksburg, which grew at a rate of 12.44% between 2010 and 2012, making it the region's fastest-growing community.

Places like Loudoun are no stranger to the list of speedily-growing counties, having transitioned from farms to suburbia in less than a generation. However, the addition of inside-the-Beltway communities like Arlington and Alexandria is impressive. DC, Arlington and Alexandria have all sought to encourage smart infill development around Metro as a way to revitalize older neighborhoods, and it's clear they've been really successful.

Meanwhile, first-ring suburban counties haven't been slouching. Between 2010 and 2012, Montgomery and Fairfax counties grew by 3.39% and 3.41%, respectively, just below the region's average of 3.98%. In 2012, Montgomery's population topped 1 million for the first time, making it and Fairfax the only jurisdictions in the region with a 7-figure population.

Majority of region's growth happening in and around the core

Not only are the core and inner-ring suburban counties continuing to grow, but they're carrying most of the region's growth. Of the 224,000 people who moved to Greater Washington between 2010 and 2012, 62% of them moved to the city and inner suburbs. As a result, the core and inner ring now contain 69% of the region's total population.

Roughly 1 in 7 new residents moved to the District of Columbia, while 22% moved to either DC, Arlington or Alexandria. Though the inner suburban counties, Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax, are growing at a slower rate than both the core and "second-ring" counties like Loudoun and Prince William, they received about 40% of the region's population growth. Another 30% occurred in the second-ring counties, while 7% went to rural counties in Maryland, Northern Virginia and West Virginia.

We don't have any data for where growth is specifically occurring in the inner ring, but judging from the building boom in places like Silver Spring in Montgomery and Merrifield in Fairfax, it's likely happening in the same kinds of places and for the same reasons as in the District, Arlington and Alexandria.

Growth is uneven

The largest Greater Washington communities by population.

Communities by share of regional population and population growth.

The region's fastest-growing communities.

While most close-in communities are growing at a fast clip, Prince George's County isn't doing as well. It grew at a rate of just 2% between 2010 and 2012, placing it among the region's slowest-growing counties. This is not only unfortunate for Prince George's, which for decades has lagged neighboring counties in drawing people and businesses, but for the region as a whole.

DC's resurgence and the continued growth of older suburban counties like Montgomery suggest that people want to live close in. Presumably, Prince George's should benefit from that demand, but for a variety of reasons it's being directed to farther-out areas, which results in more traffic, more destruction of natural or agricultural land, and the ongoing disinvestment of older neighborhoods. Directing more investment to Prince George's should be a regional priority, as it will further add to the strength of other communities around the Beltway.

Yes, Greater Washington is growing a little more slowly than it used to, and that's okay. The big news is that unlike many metropolitan areas in the United States, we're growing at the center, not at the fringe. Not only does it make our region stronger and more sustainable, but it shows that other places around the country don't have to accept unending suburban sprawl as a given.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Beautifylly written. Hopefully this kind of reaserch goes into the transportation decisions our region will have to make in the next 10 years.

Another great peice of evidence that PG should get the FBI complex. It's easy to warehouse the poor, but as the projects made clear architecturally, monocultures in any regard take away from vibrancy. We need some economic stimulous in PG.

by Thayer-D on Mar 18, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

Not as beautifylly as I'd a liked'to.

by Thayer-D on Mar 18, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

great post Dan.

some points though - while the high growth at the core is dramatic (especially compared to past declines), someone trying to poo poo this would point out that the second ring suburbs are still growing faster. While its clearly easier to build on greenfields than to densify an urban or inner suburban place, we are still not quite at the point where sprawl is overcome. Note, PWC continues to be helped by BRAC.

Also there's a broader story about Md there. Its not only that PG grew more slowly than FFX (and MoCo which of course is IN md) but if you look at the second ring places, all the NoVa places grew faster than 2nd ring average (and faster than the core jurisdictions). The 2nd ring was pulled down by slower growth in Charles and Frederick, which grew more slowly than the three core jurisdictions. Indeed, there were NO Maryland jurisdictions that grew faster than any of the three core jurisdictions.

As for how urbanist the growth in the first ring suburbs is, it would be interesting to see drill down on that - I can readily believe that for MoCo. But I'm a bit dubious that new construction at Tysons, Mosaic and MetroWest accounts for over 30,000 people. There just isn't that much there yet. I guess some of the growth represents more people per unit in a fairly pricey area.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

Any Census Bureau gurus here who can explain the separation of Montgomery and Frederick from the rest of the region? Makes no sense to me.

by xtr657 on Mar 18, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

Growth in the center sounds great to me. Hopefully the trend toward urban sprawl will peter out soon.

by Chris S. on Mar 18, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport


I don't understand your question. How are they separated?

by jh on Mar 18, 2013 10:55 am • linkreport

The Metropolitan Statistical Area (DC, MD, VA, WV) is divided into two Metropolitan Divisions. One is Montgomery and Frederick in MD and the other is EVERYTHING else in the region. Why would Jefferson County, WV be in a division including the District and PG but Montgomery be counted separately?

by xtr657 on Mar 18, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

@jh: They're not separated in any of the MSA-level statistics, but the Washington–Arlington–Alexandria, DC–VA–MD–WV MSA is divided into two Metropolitan Divisions:

  • the Washington–Arlington–Alexandria, DC–VA–MD–WV Metropolitan Division, comprising the majority of the metropolitan area
  • the Bethesda–Gaithersburg–Frederick, MD Metropolitan Division, consisting of Montgomery and Frederick counties

To attempt an answer to xtr657's question, the criteria are:

Metropolitan Statistical Areas have at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties. . . . Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas are defined in terms of whole counties (or equivalent entities), including in the six New England States. If the specified criteria are met, a Metropolitan Statistical Area containing a single core with a population of 2.5 million or more may be subdivided to form smaller groupings of counties referred to as Metropolitan Divisions.
So my reading is that if there's a core of 2.5 million, you can split off whole counties to form divisions of the rest. I think it's arbitrary that Frederick-MoCo was split off rather than, say, Fairfax-Loudoun, but that's what we ended up with. But pretty much everything is just aggregated up to the MSA level or left at the county level, so it's not that big of a deal.

by Gray on Mar 18, 2013 11:04 am • linkreport


Because Montgomery (and Frederick, I guess) are so cool they deserved their own metropolitan division, duh.

But in all seriousness, my guess is the divisions are based on commuting patterns as a measure of how local economies are connected. I know 60% of Montgomery County residents work in the county (and I would assume most Frederick County residents work there as well). This would imply that commuting patterns in Prince George's and Northern Virginia point towards DC, Arlington and Fairfax, but I don't know for sure.

by dan reed! on Mar 18, 2013 11:08 am • linkreport

From OMB:

The 2000 standards also introduced the construct "Metropolitan Division," which is used to
refer to a county or group of counties within a Metropolitan Statistical Area that has a
population core of at least 2.5 million. While a Metropolitan Division is a subdivision of a
larger Metropolitan Statistical Area, it often functions as a distinct social, economic, and
cultural area within the larger region. Metropolitan Divisions can be directly compared with
each other, but comparisons of them with entire Metropolitan Statistical Areas would be
inappropriate. Federal agencies will continue to provide detailed data for each Metropolitan

by jh on Mar 18, 2013 11:17 am • linkreport

I'm with Dan on the metropolitan Division. I did a study in school on Frederick County, and about 50% of the employed adults who live in Frederick County work in Frederick County, about another 35% of those employed adults worked in Montgomery County, with the remaining 15% shared with Loudoun, Fairfax, Baltimore and Howard Counties. I-270 is a clear anchor between the two. There may be some trends we can point to regionally, but take PG county for example, they send workers internally, to MoCo, to the district and to NOVA all in large numbers, so it's better integrated to the region as a whole than Frederick Co is. Without having looked at the figures, i'd expect you would find another cluster in NOVA where Fairfax, Loudoun and PW cross a lot of borders for work, and cross between all three, but also have a strong pull especially to Arlington and Alexandria, which is considered part of the core. This is something Frederick is lacking, as Frederick sees Montgomery County as its core, which is for the most part just an inner ring suburb.

by Gull on Mar 18, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

I think the creation of the Metropolitan Divisions is political. Various suburbs want to be their own MSAs for self-promotion, and this is a sop.

by Ben Ross on Mar 18, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

The census data that was released was only for counties or cities that are treated as counties at the state level. So the 2012 national population data for cities is incomplete until the full set is released. But it did show higher growth for the city of Philadelphia than the surrounding counties. NYC hit an all-time high for population. In a couple of years, comparison of pop growth patterns from 2000 to 2008 versus 2009 to 2014 is likely to show a big shift.

With regards to the 2nd ring, I'm curious where the growth is taking place in Loudoun and Prince William counties. In the few new developments or filling in of existing development projects that shut down in 2008.

BTW, a state wide comparison of Virginia cities and counties could be interesting. My eyeball read of the 2012 census showed more growth in the "blue" or "purple" counties than in the solid "red" counties.

by AlanF on Mar 18, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

@ Alan F: I'm curious where the growth is taking place in Loudoun

Take a ride along US-50 from the Fairfax border to Aldie (where the roundabouts are). Then go check out Brambleton, Sterling and Ashburn.

by Jasper on Mar 18, 2013 11:55 am • linkreport

Nice write-up. I'm glad to see that the trend of greater growth in urban hubs has been steadily continuing. Montgomery County reaching 1 mil and Baltimore increasing it's population (although I think it also did so one year O'Malley was mayor) are definitely two of the more impressive stats. It's interesting that none of the fastest growing communities are in Maryland (although Fairfax isn't on the list either). Prince George's County should honestly be happy that they're actually still growing.

Maryland is definitely in for a rough ride economically speaking. The sequestration, the failure to attract any major business HQ within the past decade (while losing 4), and other economic woes will weigh heavy on the state in the near future. What was once an insulated economic jewel will probably face a period of economic stagnation. Just last week Marriott announced that they will be cutting "hundreds" of high-salary IT jobs in Bethesda, a huge blow to the county. As of today there's just ONE major Class A office building going up in all of Montgomery County, although many tower cranes building residential high-rises dominate the skylines from Rockville to Silver Spring. Soon this well will dry up as well.

On another note, for a county to be included in a "Metropolitan Area" there should be a requirement that the county has at least 100,000 residents irrespective of commuting patterns. For instance, Warren County, VA has only 38,000 residents, Clarke County, VA 14,000, and Rappahannock County, VA only has 7,000(!).

by King Terrapin on Mar 18, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

"On another note, for a county to be included in a "Metropolitan Area" there should be a requirement that the county has at least 100,000 residents irrespective of commuting patterns. "

so you would exclude City of Falls Church from metro DC? That makes no sense. You can have a small county thats close in with a modest population (how long ago was it that arlington had less than 100k?)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2013 12:40 pm • linkreport

"Not only are the core and inner-ring suburban counties continuing to grow, but they're carrying most of the region's growth. Of the 224,000 people who moved to Greater Washington between 2010 and 2012, 62% of them moved to the city and inner suburbs. As a result, the core and inner ring now contain 69% of the region's total population. "

These stats actually seem to indicate that the core/inner is growing mor eslowly, percentage-wise, than the outer burbs. (The inners now have 69% of th epeople, but only got 62% of the growth.) I realize that's not insignificant -- there are many big cities where the inner/core didn't see nearly as much growth as the outers -- but it seems to dampen the claim that the growth in metro DC is shifting to the core.

by Paula Product on Mar 18, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport


Yes, the second ring is growing at a faster rate than the first ring, but the core has almost caught up. And since DC and the first-ring counties (Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax) have more people, 3% or 5% growth there means a lot more people than 12% growth in Fredericksburg.

Not only that, but if the core continues to grow as quickly, the locational advantages to being in or near the core grow as well, which means more people/business/etc. will want to be near it. Part of the reason that metropolitan areas grow out is because activity gets dispersed - i.e., you move to Frederick because you work in Gaithersburg. Concentrate more stuff at the core and everything starts to shift closer in.

by dan reed! on Mar 18, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

Prince George's County isn't doing as well. It grew at a rate of just 2% between 2010 and 2012, placing it among the region's slowest-growing counties.

Wasn't someone saying just the other day that high crime rates don't account for a jurisdiction not thriving?

by Justin Beaver on Mar 18, 2013 3:10 pm • linkreport

@ AWalkerInTheCity

I meant counties, not cities (and I would classify Arlington as a city for the sake of inclusion in previous years). Virginia is obviously an exception since its cities are independent.

Close in??? Clarke County is ~50mi from DC and Warren County is ~60mi from the city. I'm just saying that population (and perhaps distance) should be a factor when considering a county as part of a "Metro Area." Including an area in the middle of nowhere (even by VA standards) a pop. density of 73/sq mi in the DC Metro Area doesn't make much sense.

by King Terrapin on Mar 18, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

@King Terrapin

People from there, commute to here. I know, its sick, but it happens. Ultimately, not a huge deal.

by Kyle-W on Mar 18, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

@King Terrapin

As others have said, the definition of metro areas are based on where people go to work. The DC area has one of the nation's highest number of "mega-commuters," folks who commute from places like Clarke County or Jefferson County into DC or closer-in communities. They may not seem to have much in common with DC, but they do have economic ties to the area.

by dan reed! on Mar 18, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

king - so it sounds like anyplace thats small dense and close in like arlington you would classify as a city, even though its a county? (And Va independent cities are like counties).

Why not just say semirural areas on the edge, if thats what you mean?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2013 4:43 pm • linkreport

It should be noted the combined 2012 population of DC, Arlington, Alexandria is 999,662, up 50K since 2010, and effectively 1 million given limits of measurement error. Not a new combined high pop for the 3, given the population decline in DC from the 1950s peak offseting the growth in Alexandria and Arlington. Still, taking a quick look at census historical numbers on wikipedia, looks like the combined total for the "core" could hit an all-time high in a few years if the growth continues.

The percentage growth for Fredericksburg city is a little surprising. Could much of that be for people relocating and commuting to Ft. Belvoir?

by AlanF on Mar 18, 2013 4:52 pm • linkreport


The population requirement would specifically apply to counties in general. However, since Virginia has independent cities these would be exempt. In addition, Arlington County which is uniquely dense and small (unless you count the "counties" that make up NYC) as you said, it would also be classified as a city. Furthermore some sort of distance requirement could also be added so that Arlington, Falls Church, etc. would be exempt anyway.

@Kyle-W, danreed, et al.

I understand the reasoning for including those places, I was just proposing a way of making it more accurate. It's not a huge deal. It's just that in my mind when I think "metro area" I don't think of extremely rural counties over an hours drive (most of which is through "country") from the central city.

by King Terrapin on Mar 18, 2013 9:45 pm • linkreport

Re: Rural counties being included in the Washington MSA: If Census is factoring in where people work, I would guess MARC and VRE are a factor. MARC makes it possible to commute to downtown DC from Jefferson County. VRE reaches down into Stafford and Spotsylvania Counties.

Several years back I was commuting from Fairfax City to 15th & M NW. I had colleagues who lived in Shepherdsdown. Their MARC commute took about the same amount of time as my Orange Line one.

by c5karl on Mar 19, 2013 9:44 am • linkreport

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