Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
A new documentary traces how the D.C. suburb’s pedestrian-centric, mixed-use approach came to dominate urban design.
It’s rare for a 1960s suburban development to exert a cultural pull distinct from its neighboring city, but Reston pulled it off.
Situated about 20 miles from Washington, D.C., in what used to be northern Virginia farmland, this settlement has attracted generations of urbanists for its people-first brand of development. When Robert E. Simon Jr. bought the land and planned his flagship project, he insisted on walkability, density, access to nature and green space, and diversity of races and income levels. He didn’t invent these principles—his inspirations were hundreds of years old—but he and his successors managed to realize them at a scale and level of success that hadn’t been seen before
The new documentary Another Way of Living: The Story of Reston, VA charts Simon’s project from its genesis to now, through some of the last interviews he gave before passing away last year at 101. He’s a complicated fellow: an idealist dedicated to principles of quality, but also a grounded extrovert who understood—unlike most post-war suburban developers—that there are place-based requirements to happy living. The film, which screens Thursday at the Environmental Film Festival in D.C., makes the case that the best ideas driving urban revival today were actually tested and implemented by the team that built Reston 50 years ago.
A developer who bikes
Simon’s career as a developer began in a way that would be impossible to emulate: he inherited Carnegie Hall at the age of 23. His father had been an uneducated, self-made real estate businessman, and assembled a robust portfolio before he passed away. After some years pursuing more conventional projects, Simon sold Carnegie Hall in 1960 and bought a swath of farmland in northern Virginia. His goal was to create a new kind of suburbia.
The film shows how Simon’s ideas on urban design dated back to his early twenties, when he bicycled through Europe. As a gregarious conversationalist, he loved how this mode of transit allowed him to meet so many people. But he also loved what he saw in the ancient cities of the continent, particularly the Italian hill towns. These communities clustered densely around a central hilltop plaza, where people of all shapes and sizes mingled and did business within an easy walk from home.
At a time when suburban development generally meant rambling streets of single-family homes, Simon decided to build Reston as a series of dense village centers that just happened to be in the middle of the countryside. Each would have its own architectural style and a central plaza with shops and things to do. Concentrating the development around these points also let Reston preserve more of the surrounding woodlands.
“He fell absolutely in love with the beauty of the land, these rolling hills and the wooded areas, and he really wanted to preserve that as much as possible,” Wingert-Jabi tells CityLab. “Density was a vehicle. If you’re spreading single family homes ... all across the landscape then you’ve pretty much taken that away.”
The villages were designed with a range of housing units available for people in different income brackets. This was both inclusive and economical: Simon wanted a place where families could spend their whole lives, swapping up as their incomes rose. He also insisted on the principle of racial equality: Reston welcomed anyone who wanted to live there, at a time when racial housing covenants were plentiful.
The first wave of development also included amenities beyond just the housing stock: tennis courts, golf courts, lakes, and miles of paths through the remaining forest. Simon spared no expense, because he wanted the first adopters to enjoy the full vision of his new way of living.
It ain’t easy
The problem with sparing no expense, though, is it gets expensive. Not only that, but in the early years Reston units weren’t selling fast enough to support the lavish investment. They were strikingly modern in style, and located a long way up the two-lane Route 7 from D.C. And then there was the race issue: Reston was deliberately non-segregationist in a state that had shut down public schools in 1958 rather than integrate them.
Simon eventually had to choose between going it alone and preserving his vision at the risk of bankrupting it, or finding outside investors. This precipitated one of the great odd-couple pairings in suburban history: when the nature-loving, pedestrian friendly Reston got bailed out by the oil industry.
In 1967 Gulf Oil stepped in with lots of cash to shore up the development’s financing. They sent in their own consultant to analyze the business practices and chart a new way forward. That future did not have space for the visionary founder of the town. Simon got fired, and then he had to leave.
“Why hang around and have people looking at me with pity instead of with affection?” he says in the documentary. “No, I was persona non grata, as they say.”
Something funny happened, though, when Gulf took their Reston data and ran it through an early computer algorithm to test the most profitable path forward. The scenario the computer produced was strikingly similar to the existing master plan. The clustering and density weren’t just a feel-good idea—they made sense commercially, too. Maybe the villages Gulf, and later Mobil, developed were a little more car-oriented, with smaller plazas and less density. But the overall strategy stayed intact.
Jim Todd, who ran real estate in Reston for Gulf and Mobil, tells CityLab that the oil companies weren’t interested in meddling with the local operations of the community—they were just looking to park some of their windfall profits in a place outside of the industry. The local government was on board because it ensured the development wouldn’t run out of funding. It was community building as portfolio diversification.
In subsequent decades, the team leading the development locked down key additions to fulfill the central plan. The Reston Town Center opened in 1990: a dense cluster of offices, restaurants, and shops, centered on a wide-open plaza with a fountain. The plaza hosts parades and celebrations, an ice rink, and other seasonal festivities, serving as a community gathering spot. Then, in 2014 the Metro opened a Silver Line station in Reston, finally completing the interconnectedness needed to make cars unnecessary.
Simon returned to his baby after two and a half decades of exile in Long Island (the film makes a point of noting how that community’s design forced him to drive to get anywhere). The documentary captures him in the last years of his life strolling through the pathways of the town he loved, savoring the beauty of Lake Anne in the morning and chatting with anyone he ran into.
In the meantime, this brand of suburban development, with mixed-use, dense housing around central plazas and transit hubs, has come to dominate new development. Which just goes to show that the principles of new urbanism aren’t all that new.
“[Simon] would constantly reflect on the fact that he didn’t really create new concepts in Reston,” says Wingert-Jabi. “What he did was he combined some good ideas that hadn’t necessarily been combined in the suburbs before.”
Part of the success of these new developments is owed to the innovative planning tools that Reston developed with Fairfax County. When Reston began, suburban planning used fairly crude zoning ordinances to separate swaths of land into different, supposedly incompatible uses, says Patrick Phillips, global CEO of the Urban Land Institute. The Reston designers convinced the county to allow more flexibility in the zoning for density and use. In just about any new suburban development these days, you’ll see this approach at work. Reston wasn’t the only place in the country developing these techniques, but it was a particularly successful and influential practitioner.
The space and financing requirements make it unlikely that another Reston-scale development could happen in the U.S. today, Phillips says, but cities now are adapting this approach in urban redevelopment—like Hudson Yards in New York City, or D.C.’s Southwest waterfront. “Those are all the same lessons, they’re just applied in a new context,” he says. Robert Simon took the principles of urbanism out to the suburbs, and now cities are reclaiming what he learned.
It’s not just in the U.S., either. A generation of urban planners who grew up in Reston or studied it in school are now practicing its philosophy around the world. For instance, China just revised its urban design standards to move much more toward a Reston model than the superblock model they were using, Phillips adds.
“What we are seeing today... is that many of the ideas of Reston have become really mainstream,” Phillips says. “He really did pivot the suburban discussion toward a much healthier idea about what the suburbs could be.”
Another Way of Living will be shown at 6:30, March 24, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. as part of the Environmental Film Festival.