My family moved to the Northern Virginia portion of Greater Washington about a year ago and almost immediately began to hear complaints from others recent arrivals concerning the traffic, the congestion, and the growing urban sprawl. Well, the traffic is bad and new suburbs, really whole new small cities, do seem to be sprouting like mushrooms after a rain. Yet despite the sprawl, once one turns off the main thoroughfares, one is impressed with the number of quiet, green, handsome neighborhoods, the easily available shopping areas and cultural amenities, the large school grounds, the extensive public areas and private office parks, and the hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails that extend from the DC city center. Despite all the complaints and the growing number of inhabitants, most seem to find the area a pleasant enough place to live.
True, it wasn’t always this congested around here. Washington was just a small, sleepy city until well into the New Deal. This entire transformation has taken place within a lifetime, most of it since the days of the Great Society in the 1960s. Now there is a steady stream of new arrivals to fill the jobs created by this great, and growing capital which, for better or worse, has become the focus of world, not just American, political life. For those ambitious to make their mark on the world scene – all the people of the elected and permanent government, the military, the lobbyists and trade associations, the diplomats, the scientific and health researchers, the world famous universities, the think tanks of all persuasions, and all the thousands and thousands needed to service their many and varied needs and desires – Greater Washington is the place to be.
However, think back for a moment to another great city that once functioned as the practical capital of the world. Imagine ancient Rome on the eve of the first barbarian conquest in 408, a city Edward Gibbon estimated at “twelve hundred thousand: a number which cannot be thought excessive for the capital of a mighty empire though it exceeds the populousness of the greatest cities of modern Europe [in 1783].” Here too was a city of crowds, and noise, and smells, and filth, and commerce, and excitement, and creativity, and sprawling sub-urbs, spreading beyond the original walls in an uncontained flow. But at the end of its long, slow, thousand year decline and fall, Gibbon found, “The population of Rome, far below the measure of the great capitals of Europe, does not exceed one hundred and seventy thousand inhabitants, the largest portion of the seven hills is overspread with vineyards and ruins.” Well, that pretty much took care of all the congestion-and the fun and excitement, too.
Now no one wishes such a dismal fate on Greater Washington, but some of us think America would benefit from a lot less government more dispersed across our great country. A modest government, confined to its proper constitutional limits, would certainly take care of the problem of sprawl and congestion. But as long as Washington remains the imperial city that it has become, there really is not much that can be done to keep its physical expansion contained. The politicians, with their characteristic hubris, will hold meetings and planning sessions, and create new commissions, and raise taxes, and spend money. But not much will change. “Smart growth” restrictions will be like mere container dams thrown up against an implacable flood, the water of which will find its way around these feeble barriers and flow out again into the surrounding countryside. The only practical way to control the growth of Northern Virginia is to control the growth of the government itself-something this observer believes would be a good end in itself unrelated to sprawl and congestion. But who expects such a call from our political leaders, or from the bulk of the commuters struggling home at night from their careers in the city, or from our civic leaders, or from the smart growth advocates themselves. Until we effect a change in our attitude toward government, we should not take all this “smart growth” talk very seriously.