Image by DC Policy Center used with permission.

Our region is unique in that it spans two states plus DC, and at times accounting for its breadth can be difficult. But to understand the economy on a macro level, we have to look beyond borders. These maps show some of the key features of the massive unit that is the Washington metro region.

Metropolitan areas are natural units of analysis for economic and demographic activity, where businesses and residents locate in areas that are most advantageous to their situations. Both the center and the surrounding jurisdictions play a role in making this unit work.

Generally speaking, the central city of a metropolitan area offers concentrated employment opportunities, and likewise serves as the hub of urban and social services. The dense, diverse neighborhoods surrounding the central city provide economic opportunities, easy transit, and affordable housing.  The outer neighborhoods offer cheaper means of servicing the metro area: businesses in manufacturing, warehousing, and wholesale trade locate here. 

My organization, the DC Policy Center, aims to provide data about demographics and economics to help with decision making in the District. We know, however, that you can’t talk about DC without talking about the region. So we started with these maps to show patterns related to where people live.

DC is the densest place with the most jobs

The District is the central city anchoring our metro region. It supplies 12 percent of core metro workers, but 21 percent of the jobs. The District likewise holds a disproportionate share of the metro area’s residents relative to its limited geographic footprint.

Image by DC Policy Center used with permission.

Looking at the metro area by county, it’s clear that population density is highest in the District, even with its (in)famous height limit—nearly 9,800 persons per square mile—and falls rapidly as one moves away from the center, especially towards the east.

Within the District itself, density varies greatly, ranging from over 50,000 persons per square mile in apartment-laden parts of the central corridor to under 4,000 in the residential neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River dominated by single-family homes.

When we pull back from just the District to look at the broader metro area, a number of patterns emerge:

The region's urban core has the most singles

Because census tracts are drawn to hold about equal sized populations, households are rather evenly distributed across the metropolitan area, but families with children are more prevalent in suburban areas than urban ones.

This map shows how many families are in census tracts in the region that have at least 50 households.  Image by DC Policy Center used with permission.

The Washington metro area’s population is racially segregated

Black residents are concentrated in the southeastern neighborhoods of the District and Prince George’s County, and white resident (including Hispanics) in the western areas of Fairfax, Loudoun, Fauquier, Stafford, and Prince William counties.

Image by DC Policy Center used with permission.

Most of the region's wealth is in the west

The area’s wealthiest households are in Montgomery County and northern parts of Fairfax. Overall, income distribution across the metro area is actually relatively even: only a handful of census tracts report more than 10 percent of households ds earn less than $35,000 or more than $200,000.. At the same time, it's very clear that the eastern half of the region is generally poorer than the west.

Image by DC Policy Center used with permission.

Administrative borders confine our policies, not our people or our economy

Looking at these demographic and socioeconomic patterns across the metro area, it is clear that the the challenges DC faces are not bound by its borders. To truly understand the forces that shape where we live, we need to take a broader view. And as the District attempts to address issues like poverty, affordable housing, education, workforce development, homelessness, transportation challenges, and more, it will need to take intraregional forces into account and, ideally, work with neighboring jurisdictions to find solutions.

The District’s administrative borders limit where we can pass and follow our own rules and laws, but these borders are not impenetrable walls. Workers, residents, and businesses move across the metro area, paying little attention to where administrative lines are drawn. They are attracted to places with good schools, good services, affordable houses in safe neighborhoods, positive business climates, and with easy transportation. They do not care much about what flag adorns the skies.

The District, like all other jurisdictions that make up the Washington metro area, is a small open economy, drawing from the strength of the region and constantly competing for jobs, workers, and residents. Our policies, investments, and actions reverberate across the metro region, pushing or pulling businesses, workers, and residents in and out of our city. We must pay more attention to our position within the metro region: We are administratively separate, but when it comes to jobs and people, we are deeply connected to our broader economic unit.

This article is a part of an ongoing series of studies from the DC Policy Center.

Thumbnail: Image by DC Policy Center used with permission.

Yesim Sayin Taylor is the founding Executive Director of the DC Policy Center. With over ten years of public policy experience in the District, Yesim is recognized by policymakers and advocates as a source of reliable, balanced analyses on the District. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from GMU and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Bogazici University, located in Istanbul, Turkey.