Thanks to shopping malls and federal contracting dollars, Tysons Corner exploded from an empty cow field in the 1960s to America’s 12th-largest employment center in 2008. Along the way, it attracted Fortune 500 companies and some 120,000 total employees, becoming a textbook example of what’s known as an “edge city,” a concentration of business activity outside of a traditional downtown. But all this growth created so much congestion that by the early 2000s, it became clear Tysons wouldn’t survive if it didn’t transform itself from a car-clogged commuter drop zone into a vibrant, livable city.
County officials launched a sweeping initiative and drafted an urbanization plan defined by walkable city centers, seamlessly integrated public transportation, and acres of parkland. Politicians rewrote land-use rules, developers invested billions of dollars, and residents shouldered new taxes in an all-or-nothing bet that the transformation would convince people—by the tens of thousands—to move to an area best known for having more than 160,000 parking spaces. By 2050, proponents of the effort are banking on a population surge from 19,600 people today to as many as 100,000.
While other suburbs have undergone similar retrofittings, none has attempted anything on this scale; Tysons is almost as big as College Park. Already, urban planners from China and Russia have arrived to see the project for themselves.
“The redevelopment of Tysons is the most important urban redevelopment in the country, possibly in the world,” says Christopher Leinberger, a professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “If they do this right, it’ll be the model. Just as it was the model of edge cities, it will be the model of the urbanization of the suburbs. It’s that big.”
The making, unmaking, and remaking of Tysons Corner is about much more than a single suburb. It’s also the story of how modern Washington itself came into being as a region, and it offers a unique window into where it’s going, too.