Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: F.C. Should Learn from Arlington’s ‘Smart Growth’

By Suzanne Smith Sundburg

Charlie Clark’s column in the August 26 News-Press on Arlington parkland highlights the harsh realities resulting from decades of poor planning and unwise land use. For years, Arlington County has claimed that “smart growth” would result in fewer cars on the road with little or no increase in the school-age population. It would be environmentally sound. And all this development would pay for itself, too!

Yet today, we see increasingly congested roads and failing intersections. We house around 3,000 children (roughly one out of every eight students) in school “relocatables,” with more trailers being added this year. Along with an increasingly dense population, our budgets have grown increasingly tight. And we have less undeveloped land to use for any purpose, public or private. None of these outcomes were hard to anticipate if county employees – who are supposed to be “experts” – had employed reality-based planning and legitimate impact analysis.

Arlington’s critical shortage of parkland and green space has been discussed since at least 1975. Citizen-volunteers on the Planning Commission’s Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor Committee stated in a June 1975 report that it was “important to note that the [R-B] corridor is already deficient in park acreage… To allow increased development of the corridor without the concurrent purchase of the required parkland would be unconscionable.” The committee strongly urged the county not to repeat the mistakes already made in Rosslyn. The county ignored those recommendations. And today, public officials still attempt to place the blame not on their own failed policies and inadequate planning but on the hapless citizens who trusted them.
Over the last 30–40 years, the county has allowed 80 percent of its mature tree canopy to disappear beneath a sea of highrises (built right up to the street), asphalt, cement, and so-called permeable or semi-permeable hardscape that is euphemistically called “open” space. Arlington’s land-use policies and scorched-earth development practices have contributed, among other things, to poor local air quality. The American Lung Association gives Arlington an F for air quality/smog.

Whereas traffic counts technically may have dropped, that reduction may be attributed more to the difficulty of counting cars stuck in traffic rather than a true reduction in the numbers of vehicles on the roadway. Cars sitting in traffic emit more pollution. And more pollution means higher rates of asthma (especially in children), more lung disease, more strokes, and more cardiovascular events.

If you doubt that land-use has had an impact on our local environment, there are some geospatial satellite images that a local high school student submitted to JMU’s Geospatial Semester contest in 2011–2012 at fcne.ws/jmugeospatial. The urban heat island effect is real and growing. NASA studies show a direct link between dense urbanization and the urban heat island effect – resulting not only in higher temperatures but also increased air pollution. Unlike parkland, grass and other natural infrastructure, urban buildings, asphalt and concrete retain heat, which combined with auto exhaust produces dangerous ground-level ozone (aka smog).

“Smart growth” as applied in Arlington has been deeply flawed. Traditional smart growth supporters like Kaid Benefield of the Natural Resources Defense Council agree. In his column on the “environmental paradox of smart growth,” he specifically notes the lost opportunities to acquire/add sufficient parkland during Ballston’s redevelopment. Creating Arlington-style urban canyons has consequences. One is the loss of natural infrastructure that mitigates pollution (including carbon), offsets the urban heat island effect and protects public health.

Sadly, the remnants of Arlington’s mature tree canopy and other natural resources are located primarily within parkland. If we want to give Arlington’s children a healthy beginning when their lungs are developing, then we must find a way to nurture, preserve and expand our natural infrastructure.

But Arlington has continued making poor choices that favor short-term gain rather than making wise decisions and investments for the long term. However, there is still time.

Arlington can build up rather than out, shrinking the footprint of both private and public structures. It can require increased setbacks and convert existing hardscape surfaces back into green space and parkland with each redevelopment project. It can incorporate Chesapeake Bay Act regulations into the Zoning Ordinance to limit impervious surfaces. And, yes, it can jealously protect our remaining parkland and green space to ensure that they continue serving their existing, indispensable functions.

But first, Arlington County government must acknowledge that parkland and green space are not luxuries but necessities. And that hot, crowded Arlington must accommodate and preserve nature if we are to protect public health and provide a livable environment for the people of Arlington.
For our neighbors in Falls Church, Arlington serves as a cautionary tale. I hope that the Little City can avoid making the same mistakes.