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Arlington has quietly grown its own tech economy within DC metro: A satellite city on the rise

The Virginia urban county’s boom in software developers brings valuable lessons about investing in workforce and culture.

Arlington skyline as viewed from Georgetown, DC (Ajay Suresh/Wikimedia Commons)
In 1915, a minister named Graham Romeyn Taylor published a tidy book called Satellite Cities.

His interest was places with urban characteristics of density and industry. Not the small towns and early streetcar suburbs that presaged the sprawl of the late 20th century, but hubs of commerce that grew outside the big and dirty industrial cities that dominated pre-war American economic life. 

Outside New York and Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit, Birmingham and Pittsburgh, large employers established new operations just beyond the big city. In many cases, they thought employees could avoid a wide array of distraction in greener pastures. 

“The satellite city is looked to as a sort of isolation hospital for the cure of chronic trouble,” Taylor wrote of drinking and vice — and the growing organized labor movement. “How far does the removal of work-people from the big centers of population undermine the strength of trade unions?”

Today, leading satellite cities seek to establish their own identities, typically boasting their big city when it suits them yet vying for their own culture otherwise. 

“We offer people choice,” said Ryan Touhill. “When someone leaves a city, we’d rather they stay in a region than leave entirely.” 

Touhill is the director of Virginia’s Arlington Economic Development, so he had the DMV region surrounding Washington DC in mind, but he could have been speaking on behalf of anyone charged with a satellite city’s economic development strategy. 

Outside Manhattan, for example, a string of north New Jersey cities boast nightlife and transit alongside industry, from Jersey City to Newark — each with more than 250k residents. A constellation of smaller municipalities ring Philadelphia, including King of Prussia, Wilmington, Del., and even complicated Camden, NJ. Look at Chicago, Los Angeles and the new-growth cities of the south, and you’ll invariably find satellite cities with their own economic strategies. 

Sure as the country’s biggest cities boast tech workforces and entrepreneurship investments, the mid-sized hubs are doing the same. In the 2010s, tech employers chased millennial talent into downtowns. That hasn’t reversed entirely, but the pandemic-backed bump in remote work opened doors. 

Arlington County is reaping the benefits. Since 2019, the number of software developers there has grown by almost 30% to nearly 8,000, according to a analysis, a faster rate of growth than the region’s other big tech counties. Today, there are more software developers in Arlington County than all tech industry jobs — fewer than 6,000 — unusual in the region. 

No question, Virginia’s larger Fairfax County is the immediate area’s economic powerhouse — home to more than 30,000 software developers and one of the biggest information sectors on the East Coast. 

But Arlington’s software developer totals are third highest in the region, and growing faster than nearly anywhere else. 

Arlington’s growth in tech employment

An unusual portfolio of tech-forward federal government institutions are based in Arlington, notably the Department of Defense inside the sprawling Pentagon and the chief internet angel investor DARPA. Tourists in Georgetown admire Arlington’s boxy glass skyline in Rosslyn across the Potomac. Paused or not, Amazon HQ2 is an Arlington victory lap. They all employ tech talent, though most aren’t traditional tech employers.

These are the sites of Arlington’s quiet emergence as a dominant force in the DMV’s enviable tech employment mix. 

Its big employers are best known, but there have also been notable investments in startup culture, and in the county marketing itself as an urbane live-work-play destination. Its tech workforce spans the regional economy, reaching far outside traditional IT employers.

Thriving satellite cities today aren’t courting railroad barons so much as they are vying for entrepreneurs and tech workers.

"The future of prosperity will still rely on a concentration of people and businesses," said Touhill, the economic development director, while acknowledging things have changed.

"There’s no avoiding that we experienced a fundamental shift in human behavior that will impact commercial markets, and places like Arlington that invested in density. Folks who used to go every day, five days a week, to the office supported both business corridors with transit systems and neighborhoods with restaurants and services.”

That cuts both ways for today’s satellite cities. But Arlington continues to bet on being a standout in a region known for its educated, technical and diverse workforce. 

Better than half (54.1%) of Arlington’s software developers are not white, unusual in the US. The county’s foreign born population is higher than national averages, and its educational attainment is much higher. 

But far from suburban sprawl, Arlington continues to bet on density.

“Transit-oriented development is still the right bet for a region that is as important as ours,” Touhill said. “We want to set that vision of transit-oriented live-work communities for the country.”

A unique identity with culture and jobs

Touhill’s challenge, like other satellite city boosters, is to balance a unified regional message with representing his narrower county-level remit. He thinks a lot about jobs, but he’s quick to note restaurants and housing and culture too. 

“What are in-person activities like arts and culture that make a place vibrant outside the 9 to 5?” Touhill asked rhetorically. These are ideas many in his region consider.

The Northern Virginia Economic Development Alliance, which emerged from the Amazon HQ2 bidding process, exemplifies this regional collaboration. It hasn’t always been chummy, spanning jurisdictions and multiple states. But big victories have juiced collaboration.

We need to build a healthy startup community that is also good for the region.Ryan Touhill Arlington Economic Development

“Sometimes Prince William County gets the win, sometimes Arlington gets the win, so we can work together to make a stronger offering,” Touhill said. “If a founder [who lives in Arlington] is getting benefit by taking the train into a DC event, then I think that’s great. We need to build a healthy startup community in Arlington that is also good for the region.”

Like nearly everywhere, an “ecosystem building” economic development strategy increasingly relies on workforce development. A central lesson from Arlington nabbing Amazon HQ2 was the necessity of having an established and growing workforce.

That’s why in 2022 Arlington used ARPA funding to launch a 20-week tech apprenticeship program, further cementing its commitment to workforce development. Touhill also credited George Mason University as being as important to Arlington’s economic strategy as any one-off large employer.

Focus on the people, not the employers

Blessed with so much federal government backing, it’s tempting to think Touhill has it easy. What are Arlington’s challenges? 

Like so many of the country’s most economically vibrant places, the cost of living is high. Other cities are navigating this. Still buzzy Austin, Texas, saw its average rents fall recently by driving enough housing supply. Arlington hasn’t.

Arlington is also simply a newer kind of place, so its independent identity is still developing in a way that older American cities already have — Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Charleston all have more independent culture than satellite city Arlington. 

It’s a question many fast-growing satellite cities have: Can housing and identity develop fast enough to be a place people stay and grow long term?

Last fall, a group of prominent economic thinkers wrote an essay introducing the term “Meta City” to refer to a group of influential international hubs that are increasingly connected by a remote workforce. The implication was that DC might care more about Dubai than Arlington. International hiring has introduced a new wave of US founders to how many Latin American tech workers also live in Eastern Time. To continue their own growth, satellite cities have more competition than back in the 1910s.  

The lesson from Arlington is that rather than serving hypothetical employers, the focus should be on the people already living within your border.

“Our work is about economic prosperity,” Touhil said. “We see our job, in addition to growing the tax base, as ‘How do we grow economic prosperity for people who live or work in this region?’”

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