Who Says No One Walks in the Suburbs?

Arlington, Virginia

Everyone knows that the Millennials—the largest generation in U.S. history—will transform American life with the choices they make about how to live.

What most of us aren’t aware of is that the community attracting the highest share of this generation is not a city but a suburb—Arlington, Virginia, located next door to Washington, D.C.—that once faced challenging population and economic decline. Millennials make up 40 percent of the population in Arlington, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate information service. Number two after Arlington is Washington itself, with 34 percent. Nearby Alexandria, Virginia, is number three, followed by Denver and Manhattan.

So what does Arlington have, and how do other towns go about getting it too?

The community’s turnaround began with the opening of a Metro line from D.C. in the late 1970s, which sparked the creation of mixed-use town centers with shopping, offices, entertainment, and housing all within easy walking distance. This growth was helped along by farsighted county officials who made this type of development legal through zoning. From there, life on foot took off and infrastructure was improved; today, 90 percent of Arlington’s residential streets sport sidewalks.

Now 17 percent of all trips around town are on foot or bicycle (exceeding even Portland, Oregon), and Arlington is ranked one of the sixteen best “Walk Friendly” communities by the national Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.

Ahead of the Millennial curve was Peter Owen, a young lawyer who moved to Arlington fresh out of Harvard in 1998 because it was the one place close to his family in McLean, Virginia, where he could still walk everywhere. “You notice lots more things, like kids playing, when you’re living at five miles per hour,” he explains. “I value the serendipitous encounters with my neighbors and the sense of connection to this place.

“Arlington is becoming a place where people matter more than cars,” adds Owen, who still owns a car, which primarily sits in his garage. “It’s not just possible to walk here, it’s safe and comfortable to walk. There are crosswalks on the corners and shop windows to look at as you pass by—it’s more fun to walk with those kinds of things.”

Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book, is a writer, speaker, and consultant on creating stronger communities.