Virginia is the New California
Photo by Ken Lund.

Photo by Ken Lund.

This past weekend turned out to have an Asian food in Fairfax County theme. On Saturday, the 24-hour Korean barbecue joint Honey Pig Gooldaegee in Annandale and on Sunday a trip to the Eden Center, the Vietnamese mall in Falls Church. To begin with, both are highly recommended.

But the combination of these two excursions made me realize that Northern Virginia is the new California. Let me explain.

First, the area has had just tremendous growth. California has been a boom town since the Gold Rush and it’s an area just defined by its constant expansion. So too with Northern Virginia.

What’s more, that growth has mirrored patterns that I associate strongly with California. You have incredibly strong growth machines, particularly as you move further out from D.C. In this analogy, Fairfax might be the San Fernando Valley or Orange County while Loudoun and Prince William are the Inland Empire. Similar looking growth and similar looking housing bubble collapse.

At the same time, you have the creation of a new polycentric model  of what density looks like that is a real competitor with the more traditional, Northeastern/Midwestern monocentric city. Los Angeles has always been described as a polycentric city, with downtown-style nodes across the city. Both Southern California and the Bay Area are also polycentric regions, though, with centers in L.A., San Diego and Orange County or San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. How different is this from a conception of Northern Virginia as having twin centers in the District and at Tysons Corner with smaller nodes at Rosslyn, Reston and Herdon and so on?

Finally, Northern Virginia is becoming a multi-ethnic melting pot like California. I started this post by mentioning that I went to Falls Church and Annandale to eat good Asian food, not the District. Those are where the really vibrant immigrant communities are centered. Similarly,  the region’s Latino population is increasingly based in Virginia. This page shows the change in the where Latinos lived from 1980, when the Latino population was evenly distributed across the region, to 1990, by which point 2% more of Northern Virginia was Latino as compared to the District or the Maryland suburbs. Then take a look at the change in Latino population between 1990 and 2000, when the Latino population of Northern Virginia more than doubled.

The analogy has helped me a lot in thinking about NoVa. In particular, I’m interested in seeing if they, like California, can make the polycentric city be urbanist and sustainable. California metro areas are already more dense than any others in the nation. That doesn’t mean most of L.A. is walkable—it’s not. But it does mean that as California, north and south, moves towards sustainability, it will end up looking very different from New York. Watching Virginia attempt to move in the same direction, you see similar things. The area needs more of an interlocking transit network and less of a hub-and-spoke system, for example (David Alpert alludes to this in his second proposal here).The pitfalls of development politics will be more from the growth machine side than from the NIMBYs. And so on.

Anyway, as a native Northeasterner, I’ve always put D.C. in with older, monocentric cities. I found recategorizing the Virginia side of the region a really helpful jolt to my thinking. Let me know if it’s totally off-base or if it helps you too.

UPDATE: I would be completely remiss if I didn’t point out that the growth of both was heavily fueled by the economic engine of the military-industrial complex.

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