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Harsher summers and young workers leaving could test Arlington in coming decades, panelists say

A panel discussing what Arlington will look like in 2050 (via Arlington County)

An intensifying climate and ongoing impacts of the shift to remote work will transform Arlington over the next 25 years, experts say.

At the same time, the county’s workforce will need to become more nimble to keep up with changes driven by artificial intelligence.

Speakers made these predictions on Monday during a panel that kicked off a year-long discussion of what Arlington should look like two-and-a-half decades from now, called the Arlington 2050 Initiative.

Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey, who moderated the event, said the county will use community input to produce two or three visions to guide later decisions.

“For now, we’re just trying to get as many views as we can, as possible, to begin to form those alternate visions of what our future should be,” Garvey said.

At the end of the evening, a crowd of about 150 attendees filled out postcards imagining that they were describing Arlington in the year 2050. Common themes included more green spaces, expanded public transit and the erasure of racial and economic disparities.

“Diverse thought and opinions are prioritized in order to make Arlington a place where people can live comfortably, and at times during difficult conversations, uncomfortably, in order to progress our county,” said a 16-year-old representative from the Teen Network Board, reading aloud from a postcard.

The climate in 2050

In terms of the climate, Arlington’s 2050 forecast calls for hotter summers and more intense precipitation.

In the 1800s, Arlington used to experience about 20 days each summer above 90 degrees, said panelist Jason Samenow, a meteorologist and weather journalist at the Washington Post. These days, it’s more like 40.

Between 2041 and 2070, Arlington is expected to average 65 days each year above 90 degrees — and that’s based on an optimistic model. More aggressive scenarios, he said, call for even more serious impacts.

“It just means more suffering, especially for vulnerable populations, for people who are poor, the homeless,” Samenow said. “On hot summer nights, they can’t cool off. That increases heat-related illness, heat-related mortality.”

A warming climate disparately impacts urban areas such as Arlington, which tend to have lots of concrete and asphalt, he said. These surfaces absorb heat and radiate it back into the environment, making them hotter than more rural areas. The county can combat these effects by planting more trees and investing in surfaces that reflect heat instead of absorbing it.

In addition to heatwaves, heavy rainstorms are expected to take a toll and the meteorologist warned of more flash flooding such as the severe floods Arlington saw in 2019.

He urged the county to find ways to reroute traffic and redirect floodwaters during torrential rain.

“I think we have to start thinking real mitigation, from the perspective of how an engineer sees mitigation,” Samenow said. “That means redesigning how we live, redesigning how we work, redesigning how we play.”

Adapting to remote work

Another challenge that Arlington faces is people leaving.

Even before the pandemic, many young urban professionals across the country were seeking less expensive places to live, said Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. Arlington was not immune from this trend, exacerbated by the shift to remote work, the consequences of which are still playing out.

Remote workers continue to leave Arlington en masse, Lombard said, noting that last year, people moved out of Arlington “on a scale comparable with 2020 and 2021.”

If many workers can live anywhere, the county needs to figure out why people should choose to remain here.

“There’s a lot of rural counties in Virginia that are very happy to compete with Arlington,” the demographer said. “I think five years ago, people would have laughed at that idea. But they’re not. They’re very serious about it now.”

As Arlington continues to seek solutions to the effects of remote work, Lombard said the county should consider just how much it has adapted and changed at other points in recent history, such as its “smart growth” along Metro corridors.

“Arlington has shown in the past that it has the capacity to make some serious adaptations and changes,” he said. “It did this with Metro. I think in the next couple decades, [Arlington is] going to have to make changes on a scale that has been successful in the past.”

The future of Arlington’s economy

A piece of positive news is that, in the view of at least one major economic player, Arlington remains an excellent place to do business.

“I’m here to tell you that you’re doing things really well in the county,” said Steve Hartell, vice president of public policy at Amazon.

He said factors such as “liveability,” “community” and “intermodal transportation” made Arlington an appealing site for the tech company’s second global headquarters.

But George Mason University President Gregory Washington said the county must move quickly to to keep pace with how artificial intelligence is changing the market. He argued that the universities and industries  here must collaborate to train people for rapidly changing jobs.

Washington called for a campaign to create a tenfold increase in the number of internships available to young people.

“It’s going to take an Apollo-like initiative in order to meet that demand,” he said.

Without this effort, the university president said that many skills students learn in their first years of college could be obsolete by the time they graduate.

How will the county pay for this?

At the end of the meeting, attendees described their vision for Arlington, one with a range of housing options, a low office vacancy rate, diverse communities and a “strong social fabric.”

Notably absent, however, were ideas on how to finance proposed changes that could help meet these goals for the county.

“If people want to have some ideas about how we’re going to fund it, please let me know,” Garvey said. “Cutting taxes won’t do it, but actually, we can’t tax our way out of it either. So we’d love to have some ideas on that.”

Garvey encouraged residents to submit their postcards envisioning Arlington in 2050, noting an option for doing so online.

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