The city of Washington, D.C. is at once the capital of the United States of America and a well-planned urban place held together by the economic strength of the government and tourism sectors.  Washington, D.C. is visited by so many people each year that tourism is the city’s second largest source of income.  The city hosts many visitors because of the siting of many cultural assets, including the powerhouse museum, The Smithsonian Institute, architectural treasures like the obelisk Washington Monument, and the extensive and attractive residential neighborhoods.  A majority of the urban heart is reasonably walkable and served by a metro system featuring clean and modern stations.  Finally, it is a city both well-endowed with parks and devoid of freeways.

The Strong Washington, D.C. Economy

Washington, D.C. has a diversified economy that is the envy of other cities.  The city is the base of a large national government, which accounts for 29% of the jobs, as is the reason many other industries are drawn to the region.  Washington, D.C. has a large number of companies in education, scientific research, finance, and public policy.  Tourism is the second largest industry of the city, with 20 million visitors a year who contribute five billion dollars to the local economy.  Overall, the Washington area economy continues to grow and is the fourth largest metropolitan economy and has the second lowest unemployment rate in the county.


Due to the freeway revolts of the 1960’s, when many American city centers were threatened with destruction by the building of interstate freeways, most of the city of Washington, D.C. was spared by high speed highways.  The nation’s most important interstate highway, interstate highway 95, running the length of the east coast, skirts around the eastern periphery of the city rather than cutting through its neighborhoods.  In a smart move, the city diverted its share of highway funding to the installation of a high-quality rail transit system called the Metro, which opened in 1976.  The Metro has 86 stations serving one million trips weekly and is the nation’s second busiest rapid transit system.  The metro system edges out into the nearby Virginia and Maryland suburbs and has in recent years stood as a nexus for the urbanization of these increasingly popular communities.

City Plan

Washington, D.C. traces its pattern of streets and parks to a French planner named Pierre L’Enfant, commissioned by President Washington in 1791 to design the new capital.  His city plan was based on those of Paris and Amsterdam and featured broad streets and avenues radiating from rectangles providing for landscaping and open space.  L’Enfant’s plan also accounted for a grand, central mall:  a garden one mile long by 400 feet wide which is now flanked by one of the U.S.’s largest cultural assets, the Smithsonian institute, an amalgamation of dozens of distinct museums free to the public.  In the early 20th century, following the deterioration of the capital grounds by the haphazard placement of buildings and growth of slums, a beautification program was initiated.  The plan saved L’Enfants plan by clearing the mishmash of buildings and establishing a city-wide park network.  In 1910, in reaction to the building of a 12-story apartment building in 1894, the federal Heights of Buildings Act was passed and remains the reason Washington, D.C. is a low-rise city.

Capitalizing on its Assets

Washington, D.C. is an economic and cultural powerhouse city because of many factors, not the least of which is its status as a national capital.  The city also owes its prosperity to its urban plan, distinctive among American cities, and the placement of tourist magnets such as the Smithsonian Institute in the urban heart.  Crucial to the social and economic success of the city is its mass transit system, itself a result of 1960’s freeway citizens’ revolts against proposed freeway construction through the middle of the city, which would have decimated the urban fabric of the District.  The city banked its share of interstate highway funding and, instead of a neighborhood-slashing freeway, built a modern metro system that has become the nations second most patronized.  37% of the city’s residents use mass transit to get to work, yet the city found gaps in its transit matrix when it studied ways to improve the mass transit system in 2010.  As a result of its findings, a new streetcar network is being constructed that will complement and enhance the metro system and help to interconnect the residential neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.