Redefining the suburbs: Tysons

Washington Metro Silver Line Extension in Tysons Corner photo: Better! Cities & Towns

“I think somebody really needs to go look up in a dictionary what the definitions of suburban and urban are… And then maybe we can have a discussion.” – Pedro Ribeiro, Spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

The above quotation is a response by Pedro Ribeiro to a claim by Tysons, a booming Washington suburb, that it is now the economic centre of the D.C. region. Washington D.C.’s leadership clearly don’t buy it. They argue they are competing in a different league, with New York and San Francisco, not mere suburbs like Tysons.

I love the quotation because Tysons is the prime example of why defining suburbs has become so hard.  By the late 1980s, Tysons was already a significant regional employment centre 20 miles from downtown D.C. It defied the traditional stereotype of the suburbs as bedroom communities and inspired the concept of the Edge City. Today Tysons is the 12th largest collection of commercial and office space in the United States.

Amazingly, Tysons is again redefining suburbs by beginning a transformation into a dense, mixed-use, walkable community. With 167,000 parking spots and only 19,627 residents this will not be an easy task, yet if successful will establish a new type of community.

How will the transformation to a walkable community begin?  As the Washington Post reports “paramount to that effort will be sidewalks“. The Fairfax county is beginning a long and expensive effort to build a grid of small blocks. The county recognizes that streets are important to creating a sense of place, and necessary to define and attract future development. The extension of the metro, which will be complete by 2014, will support redevelopment and likely affect the future development in the community.

Looking at the dictionary will not help if you’re trying to define the ‘suburbs’ or tell us much about them. Communities are never static. Tysons will certainly evolve over the next 50 years into something very different from the edge city it was in the 1990s and the employment centre it is today.