The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Where is Northern Virginia?


There are multiple definitions of the subregion known as Northern Virginia. Informed discussion is difficult if you don't know which one you're using.


Before citizens can plan where they want to go, they must know where they are. For those who live, work or seek services in “Northern Virginia,” this is a significant problem because it is not clear where “Northern Virginia” starts or stops.


Geographic confusion has a greater impact in Northern Virginia than anywhere is the United States -- except perhaps Northern California, where residents periodically attempt to create a separate state. No one's started a serious secession movement for Northern Virginia yet, but that's not for a lack of a distinct regional identity that some down-staters have jokingly likened to "the People's Republic of Northern Virginia" or "Northern Occupied Virginia."


A secessionist movement is not likely to ever get off the ground, if for no other reason that the organizers are unlikely to ever agree upon a definition of the region. All the vituperation and confusion masks the fact that the official Federal designation based on the Year 2000 Census indicates that nearly one-third of all residents of Virginia are in Northern Virginia.  


Based on official and widely-used sources, Northern Virginia is region populated by 1.36 million to 3.0 million people -- a difference of 2X plus. This place, according to these sources, has an area of  between 280,000 acres and 3 million acres -- a difference of 10X plus. What exactly, and where exactly, is this mythical place?


The following is a summary of ‘official’ designations of “Northern Virginia.” The graphic below tracks the conflict definitions.



(1)     “Northern Virginia” is the area defined by the jurisdiction of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and other agencies and public offices serving this geography. This is the area covered by the widely-used multi-jurisdictional “Northern Virginia Street Map Book” (atlas) published by the Alexandria Drafting Company (ADC).


This definition of “Northern Virginia” includes the City of Alexandria, the Counties of Arlington and Fairfax plus the cities and towns surrounded by these jurisdictions and is 283,000 acres, 1,357,300 population, 4.8 person per acre density.


A recent use of this definition in the media is found in Robin Shulman's “Loudoun Considers Buying Bus Fleet,” The Loudoun Extra, The Washington Post,  13 July 2003, regarding the proposed use of buses to transport Loudoun residents to Northern Virginia. This geographic designation, adopted by many institutions and enterprises, has been reinforced with references such as “Free delivery within Northern Virginia.” 


(2)      “Northern Virginia” is the contiguous “urbanized” area in the northern part of Virginia as designated by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. While important for statistical purposes, this area is not easily identified, and maps are hard to find. Area codes recently lost their geographical meaning. Prior to that, this geography was roughly the area covered by Area Code 703. It was depicted on the cover of some telephone books. 


This definition of “Northern Virginia” covers (1) above plus ‘urban’ portions of Loudoun and Prince William Counties – it adds an undetermined area and population with approximately the same density.


This territory is rarely used, even in media coverage of census data. For instance, the annual stories of the Texas Transportation Institute’s traffic congestion report do not note that the urbanized area is the basis for travel tabulation for the northern part of Virginia.


(3)     “Northern Virginia” is the area covered by the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission (NVPDC), which was recently and confusingly named the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) as opposed to the Northern Virginia Subregional Commission. This territory is the same as the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Northern Virginia District (NV VDOT) and the Virginia portion of the Washington Metropolitan Area Council of Governments (Wash COG) membership area. It is also the jurisdiction of other institutions and agencies.


This definition of  “Northern Virginia” includes (1 & 2) above plus the remainder of Loudoun and Prince William Counties including the cities and towns completely surrounded by those counties, for total of 840,000 acres, 1,935,000 population, 2.3 person per acre density.


The media often uses this definition when reporting on activities of Washington COG, Northern Virginia VDOT and NVRC. It is also used to describe the area of some federal programs. See Maria Glod's “Task Force To Track Gangs: Area Police Share Fed Grant to Curb Gang Activity,”  Loudoun Extra, The Washington Post, 2 Feb 2003. The article lists the jurisdictions.


(4)     “Northern Virginia” is the Virginia portion of the Washington Metropolitan Area established by the 1980 Census also known as 1983 Washington MSA. This is the area included in the Virginia portion of the territory subject to Federal Air Quality Standards control of air quality.


This definition of “Northern Virginia” includes 1, 2 & 3 above plus Stafford County for a total of 1,013,000 acres, 2,026,200 population and 2.0 persons per acre density.


A recent use in the media is William Banigin's “Stafford Teens Charged in Burglary Ring,” The Washington Post, 14 July 2003. Stafford County is noted as one of the Northern Virginia jurisdictions in which the ring operated. This is also the Northern Virginia referred to in all media coverage of air quality in the National Capital Subregion.


(5)     “Northern Virginia” is the area of the “Regional Northern Virginia” atlas produced by the Alexandria Drafting Company. This new atlas contains the Northern Virginia atlas (1) plus the maps for Loudoun,  Prince William and Fauquier Counties. The atlas was first published in the late 1990's.


This definition of “Northern Virginia” includes 1, 2 & 3 above plus Fauquier County for a total of 1,280,000 acres, 1995,000 population and 1.6 persons per acre density.


Media coverage for definitions (5) through (9) is too confusing to sort out in this context. In general, “the regional press” and media outlets use varying geographies for Northern Virginia which include these areas, especially in sports, business and lifestyle coverage. The community media in the jurisdictions outside (3) almost always refer to Northern Virginia as being “over there,” a place apart from their community. Enterprises, institutions and agencies use differing geography depending on whether they seek to be inclusive or core focused.


(6)     “Northern Virginia” is the Virginia portion of the Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA) and the Washington Primary Metropolitan Statistical  Area (PMSA) as established by the 1990 Census. As noted in (7) below, this geographic configuration has been superceded by the 2000 Census, but it has become implanted in a number of formal and informal territorial agglomerations. 


This definition of Northern Virginia includes 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 above plus Clark, Culpeper, King George, Spotsylvania and Warren Counties and city of Fredericksburg for a total of 2,305,000 acres, 2,308,100 population and 1.0 persons per acre density.


(7)     “Northern Virginia” is the Virginia portion of the Washington PMSA as established by the 2000 Census. Between the time the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget designated MSAs, PMSAs and CMSAs based on the 1990 Census covered by (6) above to those geographies based on the  2000, Census the definitions were changed. 


The change in definitions was made in reaction to the pressure from congressional offices, municipal officials, local chambers of commerce and others.  These entities did not want urban enclaves in their territory to be subsumed under the name of the region’s core jurisdictions from which they desire name differentiation, whether or not economic, social or physical differentiation exists in reality.  The reality of interconnection is, of course, the reason for calling the entire area “Northern Virginia.”  Two counties, Culpeper and King George, were dropped from the 1990 Census PMSA because the commuting percentage does not meet the new minimum standard.


This definition of “Northern Virginia” includes 1, 2, 3 & 6 above minus Culpeper and King George Counties for a total of 2,060,000 acres, 2,254,600 population and 1.1  persons per acre density.


(8)     “Northern Virginia” is the Virginia portion of the Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA) as established by the 2000 Census. As noted in (7) above, the Census Bureau definitions have been changed. The result is that the Washington-Baltimore CMSA is now larger than the CMSA based on the 1990 census because it includes the new “Metropolitan” and “Micropolitan” areas centered on Winchester, Va., and Chambersburg, Pa., as well as Cambridge, Easton, Hagerstown and  Lexington Park, Md.  Questions about these new designations are legion.


This definition of “Northern Virginia” includes 1, 2, 3 & 7 above plus Frederick County and the City of Winchester for a total of 2,360,000 acres, 2,341,600 population and 1.0 persons per acre.


Only when one reaches definition (8) does it include Frederick County which includes the northernmost territory in Virginia.


(9)     “Northern Virginia” is the Virginia portion of the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region (NUR). Those who have read The Shape of the Future understand the regional reality of this geographic agglomeration.


This definition of Northern Virginia includes 1, 2, 3, 6 & 8 above plus Caroline, Lancaster, Madison, Northumberland, Orange, Rappahannock, Richmond and West Moreland Counties as well as portions of Essex, Page and Shenandoah and other counties for a total of 3,000,000 +/- acres, 2,600,000 +/- population and .9 persons per acre density.


And now, to move from the subregion to the region...


The above geographic entities listed above are candidates for “Northern Virginia” or the ‘Virginia Subregion’ of the National Capital Subregion of the Washington-Baltimore CMSA and of the Washington-

Baltimore NUR. One would be correct to assume there is an even wider range of possibilities for definitions of the multi-state National Capital Subregion, the Washington-Baltimore CMSA and the Washington-Baltimore NUR.


It is reputed to be unpopular to be part of a “subregion.” This is strange because many are proud to be in what is called a “sub”urban area.


Region and subregion are relative terms. Both must be used with modifiers to identify which region or subregion is being referred to. Since “northern Virginia” means different areas to different people using “Northern Virginia” without a modifier is misleading.


So, what different does it all make?


Why is knowing where you are (aka, geographic literacy) so important? My book, The Shape of the Future, devotes most of Chapters 3 and 16 to this question. Perhaps a paraphrase of an ad for The Washington Post sums it up best: “If you don’t know what you are talking about, you don’t know what you are talking about.”


Nowhere is this dictum more clearly illustrated than by media coverage that refers to “Northern Virginia” but does not say which Northern Virginia the writers are referring to. See, for example, Kenneth Bredemeier's “Tennessee Bank Plans Virginia Debut,” The Washington Post, page E-1 21, July 2003.


It is imperative to understand geography in order to understand the economic, social and physical parameters of creating a sustainable future. One of the foundations of dysfunctional human settlement patterns is citizen’s failure to comprehend the consequences of the decisions that they make.


-- August 11, 2003







































Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.




























































































A Note on the "D.C. Region"


For some, it may be too late to worry about where Northern Virginia starts and stops. For many citizens, Northern Virginia has disappeared.  Go to a web site to search for a store location and select “Virginia.” You often get choices in Charlottesville, Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke, and Virginia Beach. You have to search for “D.C.” to find the locations in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun or Prince William.


This raises a related issue: the unfortunate emergence of “D.C. Region” as accepted nomenclature for the National Capital Subregion. To put a sharp point on the need for voting representation in the federal District of Columbia, it would be wise to always use this territory’s full name.  “Washington, D.C.” made sense as an address before the Civil War when Washington was a ‘'city" in the otherwise largely undeveloped Federal District of Columbia. To use “D.C. Region” is to further confuse citizens, including those who are trying to figure out where Northern Virginia really is.