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

September 10, 2015 8:04 AM11 comments

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 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.




  • This is very interesting, thanks for writing Ms. Sundberg. I hope FCC does pay attention to this cautionary tale and ensures that our recent commercial development is done thoughtfully and with an eye towards green spaces and better traffic planning.

  • Kudos to Ms. Sunberg for bringing to light the pitfalls of so called “Smart Planning.” I hope our city takes heed.

    • It’s called Smart Growth, not Smart Planning, and it while it certainly isn’t perfect, it’s preferable to the typical alternative, which is traffic-chocked suburban sprawl.

  • I am curious about your statement regarding “Arlington’s critical shortage of parkland and green space.” Can you point to some resources that support this claim? I’m not an expert, but I certainly have used many of the parks and woodlands in Arlington – Barcroft, Tuckahoe, Potomac Overlook, Lacy Woods, Long Branch Nature Center, Lubber Run, Long Bridge Park, Gulf Branch Nature Center, Madison Manor, school fields, and much more (not to mention the W&OD trail, Four Mile Run, Custis Trail, and the space along the Potomac River including access to Roosevelt Island). As a result, I would like to know how Arlington has a shortage – and what other local communities are doing in relation to Arlington and Falls Church.

    • Good question. But I would have to respectfully disagree with you on the notion that Arlington has a great parkland ratio. Have you seen the Trust for Public Land’s 2015 City Park Facts?

      The PDF for the report is found here:
      Additional material is available here:

      As a percentage of total adjusted acreage, we’re at 11.2%—behind many densely populated cities on the East and West Coasts. We’re even behind Jersey City, New Jersey, which is smaller.

      The only reason why we’re at 11.2% is that we have a boatload of federal parkland: Arlington National Cemetery, Iwo Jima/Carillon, Lady Bird Johnson Park and Gravelly Point Park (not sure about T. Roosevelt Island).

      Arlington has 7.9 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. In comparison to other high-density communities, we’re behind Honolulu, Oakland, DC, Minneapolis, Seattle and Los Angeles; tied with Baltimore and slightly ahead of Boston.

      Former County Manager Barbara Donnellan used to goose our numbers by including school property, which also is rapidly becoming developed and deforested.

      The only place Arlington excels is in the amount we spend on parks and recreation. There, we’re in the top three. So we spend more for less than just about any other high-density community in the nation. (Call me underwhelmed.)

      According to the American Planning Association, “most cities have recognized the standard of one acre of recreation land per 100 population,”

      Based on the Census Bureau’s 2014 population estimate (226,908), that would mean 2,269 acres of parkland for Arlington. What we have today (according to TPL statistics) is the following: 949 acres of county parkland; 700 acres of federal parkland, and 135 acres of NVRPA parkland, for a total of 1,784 acres.

      According to the National Recreation and Park Association’s 2015 Field Report (and using the TPL stat of 7.9 ac/1,000), for parks & rec acres/1,000 residents, Arlington is below the median (9.9) and the upper quartile (17.5) for all agencies; for agencies with over 2,500 residents per acre, Arlington is above the median (6.4) but below the upper quartile (13.5). See

      All I can say is thank goodness for federal parkland. But a cemetery is not an adequate substitute for natural or recreational space.

      • Great thoughts Suzanne, However I am wondering about your statement below:

        “Former County Manager Barbara Donnellan used to goose our numbers by
        including school property, which also is rapidly becoming developed and

        First, you imply that the school open space has been incorrectly added to the measure of open space/parkland. Experience shows that most residents in Arlington consider green open space at the schools as providing similar benefits as the formal parks. And you are absolutely correct that much of this school acreage is being threatened by school expansion needs. This is why many residents are involved in the facilities planning process to try to defend this space.

        However, your two thoughts seem inconsistent; either the school acreage is worth counting and its loss lamented, or it is not.

        • Willy, you’re right on target! Every acre of open space counts.

          However, open space on school property is, after all, dedicated to another purpose. Dedicated parkland is just that: parkland.

          One would hope that the School Board and APS staff would be forward-thinking enough to preserve what they have, particularly since there seem to be no plans to purchase additional land. But the recent addition to Ashlawn Elementary School shows just the opposite.

          Thus, adding school property to the “parkland” count is, sadly, only a temporary buttress to the overall number.

  • As usual, Ms. Sundberg has done the analysis, and advances the discussion. Far too much ‘planning’ in recent years has been to promote an unsustainable (but worthy) Utopian ‘vision’ of Arlington.

  • The tone of your article does the topic a disservice. “Tut tut tut, those ‘experts’ were actually short-sighted people who followed a scorched-earth policy, and now, looking back, we can see that… and we can cherry-pick an expert from the past to back us up.”

    Painting politicians as snake-oil salespeople is easy, however well-intentioned they are. In the real world, politics is a mix of short and long term policy, and no county is an island. If I were responding in a like fashion, I’d apologize at this point, since Arlington’s failed growth policies have caused Fairfax County to also have an F grade from the American Lung Association.

    I believe that the decision makers of the past would be happy to discuss with you the problems and pitfalls they faced when making their decisions- that would be time better spent, if you want to be guided for the future.

  • Thanks for citing my former students GIS work. She completed that at Washington-Lee High School (Arlington, VA Public Schools) while taking the Geospatial Tools and Techniques class. Here is another great GIS analysis done on O3 levels in the area by another former student:

    • No, Mr. Miller, you are the one we should thank. It is your efforts as a teacher that are so incredibly valuable to society as a whole.

      Your students are the ones who will be experience the consequences of decisions we are making today. And good or bad, they will inherit what we leave behind.

      Both you and the James Madison geospatial program and teaching science in a way that students can apply to real-world problems. We are in your debt.

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