Reston — the nationally-renowned Fairfax County New Town founded in 1964 — is at a crossroads. While the physical fabric outside the Reston Town Center has changed little over the last two decades, the community’s founding vision of inclusion has begun to slip into the background.
In its first 30 years, Reston grew rapidly, transforming thousands of acres of rolling farm and timberland to a suburban community of almost 60,000 people. But that growth has dramatically slowed down over the past two decades. Since 2000, Reston has added only about 4,000 people, almost entirely around the Town Center.
Reston is now a mature suburb that has more in common with typical high-income suburbs than the trail-blazing community it was in the past. As Reston’s political debate about future growth takes center stage, I’ve been reflecting on how the values I learned growing up in Reston are being upheld and what it would take to better fulfill the inclusive vision Robert Simon outlined for the town my family has lived in since 1976.
Reston was founded with a special vision
The vision for Reston was unique at the time that developer and founder Robert Simon articulated it in 1962. In reaction to the ballooning, racially-exclusive suburbs of Long Island, he called for a radical concept for an integrated new town to provide commercial, cultural, and recreational facilities from the outset and for structural and natural beauty to be integral. But he also called for the project to be a financial success and for people being able to live and work in the same community. Simon most critically, and in a great amount of detail, called for each neighborhood to provide “the fullest range of housing styles & prices — from high-rise efficiencies to 6-bedroom townhouses & detached houses” so that residents may “remain rooted in the community if they so choose — as their particular housing needs change.”
Much of this vision is recognizable in the Reston of today. Yet the community has diverged from it in key ways. The market is failing to produce Simon’s vision of a mixture of housing types. The design and architecture of new development is several leagues below the early ambition of Reston, with none coming close to the clear sense of place achieved at Lake Anne Plaza. The public dialogue focuses on slowing or stopping housing growth, rather than how to redouble efforts to ensure new housing is inclusive and affordable, or how to create better public places.
Further, Simon’s vision is completely silent on a vision of how a well-designed transportation system can further the preservation of the environment — a notable blind spot of an otherwise eco-friendly ethic. In its place, the county has provided a transportation system that makes it very difficult, if not outright dangerous, to be a pedestrian in Reston.
Yet the broad outlines of the Reston vision still remain. The Reston Association — the overall homeowner association that provides the unincorporated community’s public-facing services — supports a range of civic needs from pools to summer camps to vast public natural areas. There still remains deep civic engagement in the arts and faith communities, a passion for living among nature, and a commitment to a community that offers chances to “Live, Work, Play” (as the semi-official motto of the town goes). These aspects — along with still outstanding residential and communal architecture, well-run public schools, and access to a huge market of well-paying jobs — still attract people to the community today.
The Reston ethic is at risk of fading away
At the same time, much of the original Reston ethic has faded to a background hum. The community has become subsumed physically and culturally into the rest of Northern Virginia. Roughly a quarter of current Reston households have lived here before 2000 and only half have lived here more than eight years. In fact, one in seven Reston residents moved into the town in the last year — twice the rate of my similarly economically-situated neighborhood in Brooklyn.
This level of mobility is no different than other areas of the country that are economically dominated by high-education industries. However, the original Reston ethic — one of community-focus, of balancing nature, buildings and the whole needs of an inclusive community — is being lost in this transition.
There are growing strands in the politics of Reston that, if not confronted, will further erode this Reston ethic. The original plan for mixed-income housing in Reston has faded, and now the community is defined predominantly by professional-class affluence and high housing prices.
The Embry Rucker Community Shelter, the county’s homeless shelter for northwestern Fairfax County, was intentionally invited by the Reston civic and faith community 30 years ago. While embraced in many ways by volunteer support from the community, I’m unclear that if the shelter was being sited from scratch today, the welcome would be as warm.
Reston has become more like other mature suburbs
It’s not just a highly mobile population that has driven these changes. A closer look at demographics reveals some of what has changed since 2000. While the number of residents has increased only 7% since 2000, Reston has doubled its population of seniors 62 years and up. This is as Reston has 10% less children under 18. Reston might be a good community to age in place (as long as you can still drive), but high housing prices are making the community less accessible to young families. It’s hard to have the intergenerational community Simon dreamed of if new generations can’t move in.
More intense traffic has also become part of the Reston story. And it’s not just something that plagues eastbound commuters — families trying to shuttle kids around to activities or run to the store get regularly caught up in midday traffic.
Yet if Reston is not significantly growing its residential population, what’s the underlying issue driving congestion? Blame Reston's off-the-charts job growth and its car-centric design.
While local employment data is not readily available for recent years, from 2007 to 2012 the number of jobs located in Reston increased by a tremendous 31% — an addition of roughly 16,000 jobs during a period in which only an estimated 500 housing units were created. This means that Reston’s working population is about twice that of the number of residents who are employed.
As a major job center, Reston is drawing workers from as far as several counties away — places that are more affordable. This mismatch between housing and job growth is what is stressing Reston and is contributing to sprawl on the exurban frontier in Loudoun and beyond. Reston has gone from being a radical leader in matching employment and housing opportunity to just another suburb.
Reston needs more Reston
Some Restonians feel there are too many people on the road, too much new development, and too many urban-type issues to think about allowing anyone else into Reston. As a result, many have advocated against increasing the density cap in the Planned Residential Community zone or for preserving 100% of the two golf courses (even the parts that are walking distance of the Metro stops) from any type of comprehensive rethink.
In my career, I have seen similar dynamics in my work with other mature, high-income suburbs that lean blue politically like the Bay Area and Long Island. They reflect the exact type of stale, I’ve-got-mine suburban politics that Reston was supposed to be a radical antidote to.
Some might conclude from the evidence I cite that Reston needs to slow down job growth, or cap density and preserve everything as it is in the onslaught of development pressure. But rather, what Reston needs is more Reston.
Creating more Reston begins with densifying Town Center North and revitalizing the Village Centers and Isaac Newton Square as transit-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods in the vision of Lake Anne. More density around the Village Centers (again, look to the mixed-use, mixed-scale of Lake Anne) will add more demand for retail and allow for more inclusive types of housing.
Restonians need to pressure the county to bring real resources (land, public funding and political will) to create new housing actually affordable to families reliant on service sector wages. This means changing the county’s inclusionary zoning to promote affordable housing for lower income households (e.g. families living on a retail sector worker’s salary) rather than the “workforce” income levels that seem designed to avoid the controversy that Reston itself was designed to confront.
To do this, Reston will need the county to create an area-designated pot for affordable housing, as was done for Tysons, and the county will need to actively partner with non-profit affordable housing developers. Additionally, the plan for the Town Center North area — a huge tract of underutilized land owned by the county — needs to be redone to prioritize affordable housing in greater quantities and depths of affordability. Restonians can begin to advocate for these steps by coming to Cornerstone’s affordable housing forum for District Supervisor candidates on May 13.
Reston also needs to capitalize on the billions invested in Metro by making it possible for new households to come to Reston and live without reliance on a car (and let the teens, seniors, and non-drivers in current Reston households be able to get around without one as well). The outdated transportation network needs to become much more friendly to people walking. The county can start by putting sidewalks and safe pedestrian crossings everywhere within a mile of the Metro stations and Village Centers. There need to be more pedestrian crossings of the Toll Road to knit together north and south Reston. The bus system needs to be transformed to more effectively integrate Metro access into the broader set of Village Centers and make it a transportation system of choice.
And, to effectively fulfill its founding vision of design excellence, new development in Reston needs to have a clear architectural vision, not just a land use vision, for its future. This begins by prioritizing new development’s contribution to a sense of place, and deprioritizing accommodating automobiles. Look again to Lake Anne for inspiration — the only Village Center that is not visually dominated by a parking lot, but rather by a 15-story tower.
All of these things can happen without sacrificing Reston’s integration with nature, without causing homeowners to lose their home equity, without making traffic worse, and without introducing dramatic physical changes to 95% of Reston. There’s an ongoing generational shift in the expectations of what a mature suburban community can be and how it can enable auto-free living.
Reston can meet this challenge, but only if community members recognize how radical its founding values are. If Reston’s political, faith and other community leaders can help the community blaze the path to sustain these values, as happened in the past, Reston is extremely well-positioned to revitalize its founding vision for the next 50 years.