A Region Divided: The State of Growth in Greater Washington, D.C.
The greater Washington region has experienced enormous growth and change in the 1990s. It is enjoying economic growth and steady prosperity. The central city, once nearly bankrupt, is now posting budget surpluses. The region, already the nation's seat of governance, is also becoming the nation's capital of information technology and digital communication. This is a wealthy region and it has many economic, historic, and natural assets that will continue to attract visitors, new workers, and businesses that will keep this economy humming.
The booming economy has made growth a more pressing issue in this region, particularly in the fast-growing counties where traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, and threats to overall quality of life have elected officials, business leaders, and citizens scrambling for solutions. This report reveals that the challenges of growth are more complex. In short:
1. The Washington region is divided by race, income, jobs, and opportunity, with the eastern half of the region carrying the area's burden of poverty and social distress while the western half enjoys most of the region's fruits of prosperity. But the divide cuts through jurisdictions so that the District and its suburbs have both pockets of distress and areas of affluence. In the end, these polarizing trends hurt fast-growing counties and ultimately shape the pattern of growth in this region. Struggling neighborhoods with poor performing schools and wealthier neighborhoods with expensive housing-both located in the core of the region-compel some businesses and families to locate in outlying suburbs, putting additional pressures in these already fast-growing communities. The problems of hyper growth on one hand and social distress on the other are intertwined.
2. The Washington region has the resources to bridge this divide. This is primarily a prosperous region. The central city has traction in the new economy. The region's economy is rapidly diversifying. Capital and philanthropic investments are rising. Poverty here, while deeply troubling, is not as severe or as concentrated as in other communities. And while Washington is a region with two states, a state-like central city, and an engaged federal government, this region has a low degree of local fragmentation that makes building collaborations more possible than in other places.
3. The Washington region can grow smarter and must do this now. First, the regional debate in the Washington area is picking up momentum -at the federal, state, regional, and local levels. But this conversation is mostly aimed at trying to ease the crowding out of roads, schools, local budgets, and the last remaining open space in neighborhoods. Unless these current efforts broaden and embrace the fuller set of factors that fuel decentralization, this region will not be able to realize its full economic potential. Secondly, growth is not going to go away. This region will continue to gain jobs and people and consume more land. If our regional divisions widen as growth proceeds, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to create a region that is competitive, prosperous, and livable.
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