The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


The Shape of Richmond's Future


Without fundamental change, the long-term outlook for the Richmond New Urban Region is grim: traffic gridlock, "sub"urban decay, escalating cost of government services, and more.



Two reports made public in the later part of 2003 paint an alarming picture of the Richmond New Urban Region's future. The regional indicators of dysfunction outlined in these reports will translate into higher costs of doing business, higher costs of living and higher service costs. This is especially unfortunate for a region with so many potentially positive economic, social and physical attributes. It is clear that, unless there is fundamental change, the future is not bright. 


What has happened in the Richmond New Urban Region (NUR) is worse in many respects -- e.g. land consumption per capita -- than what has happened in other urban agglomerations of similar scale and other New Urban Regions in the Mid-Atlantic. The Richmond NUR remains competitive only because other regions are also similarly afflicted. Because the Richmond NUR is relatively small, is the state capital and is all within one state, there is the potential to rebound and achieve a competitive advantage. This will happen only if current trends are reversed and effective regional action is taken to achieve fundamental change in governance and human settlement patterns.  


As bad as it is, what has happened to the Richmond NUR should not come as a surprise. The facts that were reported in 2003 were predicted in the '60s, '70s and '80s. More important, although overall conditions are bad now, they will be much worse in 2025 unless a process of fundamental change is initiated.


We are often asked what "fundamental change" means.  This column outlines what is meant by "fundamental change" in the Richmond New Urban Region.


This overview of the Richmond NUR's future is presented in five parts:

  1. What do these 2003 reports say from the perspective of economic prosperity, social stability and environmental sustainability?

  2. Why are the existing regional indicators so bad in the Richmond NUR?

  3. Who is to blame for the escalating dysfunction?

  4. What do the recent reports say needs to be done?

  5. What really needs to be done -- what is the anatomy of fundamental change?

What Do the 2003 Reports Say?


The first report, Where Are We Growing?: Land Use and Transportation in the Greater Richmond Region, was prepared by the Southern Environmental Law Center for the Robins Foundation, the Richmond Community Foundation and the Virginia Environmental Endowment.   Where Are We Growing? (SELC) examines demographic, economic, land development and transportation trends, as well as the impact of these activities for "Greater Richmond." The report's area of focus includes most of the Richmond NUR.


The second report, Are Richmond's Suburbs having a Mid-Life Crisis?, was prepared by William H. Lucy and David L. Phillips who are senior faculty members at UVA's School of Architecture. The report was prepared for the Richmond District Council of the Urban Land Institute. Are Richmond's Suburbs having a Mid-Life Crisis? (Lucy/Phillips ULI) raises the hood on the core of the Richmond NUR and gets into the nuts and bolts of what is happening to property values in specific geographic areas. 


Important aspects of both reports were profiled in the lead column of the January 19, 2004, issue of Bacon's Rebellion. (See "Inflection Point.") Jim Bacon's column does a good job of articulating the findings in the Lucy/Phillips ULI report and provides an overview of the SELC report. (1)   


The "Inflection Point" column notes that property value indicators for some city of Richmond census tracks perspective are improving. While that's true, it does not mean that overall the city and its governance structure are on the mend. Therefore, it is overly optimistic to suggest that "if Richmond (city) council members simply refrain from graft and corruption, the rest will take care of itself."


Outside the City of Richmond, it is clear from the Lucy/Phillips ULI report that the property values in some Census Tracks in Henrico and Chesterfield Counties are in deep trouble, and the problem is spreading. In addition, the regional indicators outlined in the SELC report do not portend a healthy future for the Richmond NUR. It is not true, however, that there are no obvious solutions to the "suburban plight" that "Inflection Point" spells out in some detail. The solutions may be counterintuitive, and they may not be popular; however, there are solutions. Understanding the problem and outlining a solution is the subject of this column.

What these two studies document is that without intelligent regional intervention leading to fundamental change in the governance structure and the settlement patterns, the future is bleak.  The cumulative impact of current economic, social and physical trends will cause the Richmond New Urban Region to decline by most measures of economic, social and environmental health. Without regional guidance, the Richmond New Urban Region will wobble in unsustainable gyrations and will not take advantage of any currently beneficial trends.

What these two reports tell a regional planner is that the Richmond NUR is in deep trouble, and these troubles must be addressed now. However, these two studies are too important for anyone seriously interested in the future of the city of Richmond, in the Richmond NUR or any of its organic components to rely on someone else's reading. Get a copy of both reports and read them with care. If you live or have financial interests in the Richmond NUR, these reports are critically important to the value of your house, the net worth of your family and the future of your business. In fact, the reports may be considered a predictor of per capita regional net worth, as well as the safety and happiness of the region's citizens.        


Why Are the Regional Indicators for the Richmond NUR So Bad?


Dysfunctional human settlement patterns -- the conditions described in the SELC report and alluded to in Lucy/Philips ULI -- are caused by many forces. The SELC report using circumspect and politically correct terms lists most of them. Lucy and Philips have written a book titled Confronting Suburban Decline: Strategic Planning for Metropolitan Renewal which outlines the background of the trends they found in the city of Richmond, and in Henrico and Chesterfield Counties as well as elsewhere in the United States. 


There is, however, a more direct answer to the question of what in the Richmond NUR caused indicators of dysfunction to be worse than in similar urban agglomerations.

In the case of the Richmond NUR, there is one primary overarching cause of dysfunction that exacerbates all the other causes found in this and other New Urban Regions.  The problem is too many new and expanded roadways -- highways, expressways and arterials.

The problem is roads, roads, roads. The Richmond NUR is the home of VDOT, the second or third most powerful state highway agency in the United States. Over the last 80 years, VDOT has looked out for their home territory. From steering I-85 to intersect I-95 to the south of the Richmond NUR, to running I-95 and I-64 through the core of the city of Richmond, to building Interstate and Virginia Primary and Secondary System "bypasses" and toll roads, VDOT has done what it does -- build roads. The department thought it was doing the right thing. When was money was available, VDOT poured it into concrete and asphalt. Mobility resources were squandered on private-vehicle systems. Other than buses serving people at the bottom of the economic food chain, there is essentially no shared-vehicle system.

The roadways allowed citizens and their organizations to wallow in the Private Vehicle Mobility Myth.

The market, land speculation, and municipal land-use controls responded to the excess roadway system by scattering the origins and destinations of travel demand in a widely dispersed pattern. This is documented by the SELC report. Land consumption, loss of competitive advantage, air pollution, cost of services, cost of doing business, cost of living, loss of accessible open space and other indicators of dysfunctional human settlement patterns result from the mass scatteration of urban land uses facilitated by too many roads that opened too much land to urban development.  


Those from other parts of the Commonwealth who complained that every time they turned around the Richmond NUR was getting another limited-access corridor or more lanes of bridge across the James River now can smile. All those who say they want to solve traffic congestion by building more roads should look at the data on the Richmond NUR. (2)


The "Five Critical Realities" explored in our last column of 2003 apply to Richmond New Urban Region with one caveat:  jobs and services in the Richmond New Urban Region are more dispersed due to the market and municipal regulatory response to the extensive (and excessive) roadway system.


Who Is to Blame for Escalating Dysfunction in the Richmond NUR?


There are no villains in the sense that a specific group schemed to make the Richmond NUR turn out so dysfunctional. There are villains in the sense that many of the region's "leaders" knew what was happening but chose not to change it because they were making a lot of money or were getting reelected to safe seats at the municipal and state levels. The warnings have been sounded for decades. No one can say they had no idea this would happen. They cannot even say they did not know it would get this bad.

A few have made a lot of money from the creation of the current settlement pattern.  Almost all of the citizens thought they were doing the right thing for themselves, their families and their organizations when they took the actions that resulted in the current patterns. (3)

SELC does a very politic job of spreading the blame, noting the role of the market, of enterprises and of public programs and policies. In fact, the location decisions of every enterprise, family and agency contributed to the current condition. Richmond is a perfect example of the Fallacy of Composition: In an urban system, what may seem to be good for an individual cannot begin to be accommodated when undertaken by many.


Collectively the region's residents were guided by myths like the Big Yard Myth, as well as the Private Vehicle Mobility Myth and all the other myths outlined in The Myths That Blind Us. The citizens and their organizations followed the practices outlined in Wild Abandonment and Scatteration.


The SELC reports an astounding finding: If things continue as they have been, as much land will be developed in the next 20 years as was developed in the last 400 years. From regional competitiveness, cost of doing business, cost of living, cost of services or value of property perspectives, there are much more dramatic problems ahead, as the Lucy/Phillips ULI report suggests. It was, however, the land consumption number that SELC put on the front hook. 


For some, the scale of land consumption is scary. For others, all that land being developed sounds very good because they have been waiting for years to sell their land for urban land uses. For most of the citizens of the Richmond NUR, the land consumption (aka, loss of open space) is "too bad" but they need to do what they need to do for themselves, their families and their organizations.

In reality, without fundamental change, the future is much more bleak than these reports suggest.

What Do These Reports Say Need to Be Done?


The Lucy/Phillips ULI report does not lay out recommendations. It does suggest that without fundamental change the conditions will continue to deteriorate. The report cogently summarizes why, in the context of "business-as-usual," they will get worse.  Without fundamental change, there will be no overall benefit from the positive signs exhibited by some of the City of Richmond's Census Tracks. 


"Where Are We Growing?" is the title chosen for the SELC report. The whole report is written to catalyze a change from past trends. The report spends 11 of its 40 pages on "New Directions." There is not a bad idea in the lot, but the changes, even if adopted, would not constitute a basis for fundamental change. 


The report documents the general public support for a New Direction but provides little in the way of new ideas. In fact, every one of the "solutions" SELC suggests was discussed in the Commonwealth during the '60s and '70s. Some have been on the table since the '20s. In 2003, there was better data, slightly different words, a nice presentation and good references, but it is the same old story. What has happened is just what Virginia's "state planning agency" said would happen in the '60s and '70s before it and the sub-regional planning district commissions were emasculated. (4)


Missing from the SELC report is a list of things that interested, concerned citizens need to do. 


    Citizens have no quantitative basis for judging the functionality of human settlement patterns at the regional, sub-regional, community, village, neighborhood or cluster scales. For instance, what are the minimum and maximum density ranges in people, jobs or trip ends  per acre that are necessary to create functional components of human settlement pattern at the community, village, neighborhood, cluster and dooryard scales? What are the parameters for balance and functionality inside and outside the Clear Edge?  

  • There is no call for quantifiable regional or sub-regional plans to rationally allocate resources. There is not even a demand for compatible relationships between "comprehensive plans" for adjacent municipalities.

  • There is no suggestion to abandon the municipal borders that date from before the American Revolution in order to create congruence between governance boundaries and the boundaries of the organic components -- communities, villages, neighborhoods, clusters and dooryards in which citizens live and work in the 21st century.

  • The is a call for a more balanced transportation system -- but no formula for creating a transportation plan that provides mobility for the desired and functional patterns and densities of land use.

  • There are no definitions or quantified parameters for the reports objectives such as "traditional development patterns" or "transit-oriented development."

It is useless to talk to town, county and city staffs or elected officials about "smart growth" until smart growth can be quantified. Every member of the Virginia Homebuilders Association knows how to say "smart growth." At public hearings, one hears statements such as "ten-acre lots save open space," townhouses in the middle of nowhere are "Williamsburg-like clusters" and strip centers with extra landscaping, benches and tasteful signs are "pedestrian-friendly town centers." It is very clear what citizens prefer. The market shows us (See "Wild Abandonment") that we just have not found a way to deliver it for the reasons spelled out by the Lucy/Phillips ULI report.


While the SELC report is informative, well presented and comprehensively documented, unless it leads to fundamental change, it is not worth the recycled paper on which it is printed. Seventy-five percent of the economy is driven by consumer decisions and the rest is directly or indirectly controlled by those you elect to office. What different decisions will citizens make if they read the reports? We believe it is safe to assume the SELC report will foster no significant change.


That statement may sound harsh.  Let's check this assertion out with you, the reader:


The SELC report concludes with the admonition that "We must choose wisely." Let us assume you have read and believe everything that both reports say and that you understand the Five Critical Realities. Now answer the following questions:  

  • What different choices will you make before, during or after your next auto trip to work or to acquire goods and services?

  • What will be your position on the next rezoning case that you fear will add cars to a roadway you use to get from home to work or to regularly acquire services?

  • What will be the key factors when you buy your next car? Your next home? When you consider switching jobs or locating a business?

  • Will you vote for incumbents and/or persons from the party that controls the legislative and administrative processes in the jurisdictions in which you vote?

If your answer is: "I will make no changes," "I don't know what I would change" or "I have no choice but to continue to do what I have been doing," then in the technical language of this regional planner:

The Richmond NUR is going to continue to go to hell in the trunk of a car built by GM, powered by EXXON on roads paved by VDOT.

Every development project which resulted in the maldistribution of urban activity condemned by the SELC report was approved pursuant to some municipal government's Comprehensive Plan and the zoning and subdivision ordinances which Commonwealth law requires be adopted to implement these plans.


Those plans and those projects were driven by government policy including the intermunicipal tax-base competition set up by the existing laws in the Commonwealth.


It is clear that the qualitative decisions of citizens reject most of what is built, but no alternative is provided.


A better way exists, but it will not flow from the ideas put forward in the reports that document the problems or by nature taking its course.


Where to from Here -- the Anatomy of Fundamental Change?


What needs to be done? Two words: Fundamental Change. What does "fundamental change" mean in the context of the future of Richmond New Urban Region? It requires fundamentally different human settlement patterns that provide for Balanced Communities within a sustainable New Urban Region. To achieve this goal, there needs to be a new governance structure.   


Here is a simple formula for creating such a structure and to start the process of evolving a human settlement pattern that is sustainable. This is what "fundamental change" involves:


Create a temporary regional agency for the Richmond Metropolitan Area (MSA). The MSA is the counties of Goochland, Powhatan, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Charles City, New Kent, Henrico and Hanover plus the cities of Richmond, Hopewell, Colonial Heights and Petersburg. Amelia, Louisa, and King William Counties would be wise to petition to join, and this would make the agency jurisdiction closer in area to the entire Richmond NUR. Surry and Sussex would also be wise to join unless they become part of a similar organization centered on Hampton Roads.


The agency, with a 20-year sunset provision, would be governed by a five-person board. The chair would be elected at large, while four councilors would be elected from pie-shaped districts centered on the corridors defined by I-95 North, I-95 South, I-64 East and I-64 West. Each of the new districts would have the same number of citizens -- one-person-one-vote guidelines would apply-- and each district would have the regional average of job locations and worker homes, as well as the regional average of persons who live in census blocks with over 10 persons per acre and those the live in census blocks with under 10 persons per acre. This may sound arcane, but it is critical. At first these parameters may also sound hard to calculate, but recall how easy it is to do the gerrymandering now employed to ensure all the majority party candidates are in "safe" districts and the minority party candidates are in "unsafe" districts. Computers can do marvelous things.


The new agency should have three basic powers:


Regional Plans. Create a regional land-use plan and a compatible regional transportation plan. The transportation plan must provide mobility for the planned land use. The first step would be to create a quantifiable sketch plan for the region and for the organic communities therein. This should follow the Three-Step Process laid out in the Handbook. (5)


Balanced Communities. Implement the evolution of a system of Balanced Communities within the New Urban Region (but not necessarily related in any way to the four interim governance districts). Each community would have a relative balance of jobs/housing/

services/recreation/amenity. The population and job location necessary to achieve this balance would determine the size of the communities. Within each of the comminutes, the agency would oversee the evolution of an organic system of governance with democratically elected representatives at the village, neighborhood and cluster scales.


The agency would construct an organic system of governance so that the level of decision was at the level of impact. This process would be completed as soon as possible but prior to the 20-year sunset provision. The regional functions of the agency would be taken over by a new democratic assembly with representatives from the Balanced Communities and from the citizens of the region at large.


Allocation of Costs.  Ensure a fair allocation of all the location-based public and essential utility services costs. The agency would also make citizens aware of the location-based cost of all private services. As outlined in The Shape of the Future, this is the key first step in the process of evolving functional human settlement patters. (6)


This is quick summary of what "Fundamental Change" means. The second volume of The Shape of the Future outlines why these activities are important and how they can be implemented. Of the Six Overarching Strategies outlined in Part Four of The Shape of the Future, "creating an organic governance structure" is envisioned in Strategy Six and the power to ensure that there is a fair allocation of all location-based services is Strategy One.


These modest proposals may be beyond the current thinking of most who are concerned with the future of the Richmond NUR. They are not beyond the steps necessary address the dysfunctions outlined in the SELC and ULI reports.


There is a choice: Fundamental Change or Business-as-Usual.


Now you can choose: fundamental change or acceleration of the indicators of dysfunction and continuing decline of the economic, social and environmental heath of the Richmond NUR.





1. A significant threshold problem is that the Richmond NUR (as well as the Richmond MSA and many subsets of this territory) and the City of Richmond are both commonly refereed to as "Richmond" by residents and by those outside of Central Virginia. While this may seem like a simple issue, it leads to significant confusion.  Where Are We Going? (SELC) examines the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The MSA includes the counties of Goochland, Powhatan, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Charles City, New Kent, Henrico and Hanover plus the cities of Richmond, Hopewell, Colonial Heights and Petersburg. The SELC report refers to "Richmond region," "Richmond area," "Richmond metro" and "Richmond-Petersburg," but sometimes to just "Richmond" when the larger area is discussed. Are Richmond's Suburbs having a Mid-Life Crisis? (Lucy/Phillips ULI), which Bacon's column quotes at length, focuses on Census Tracks (surrogates for "neighborhoods") that are small areas within the city of Richmond and the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield.   For most readers of the reports and of Bacon's review, it is not always clear what "Richmond" is being discussed in a specific sentence or that the selected Census Tracks make up only a small part of the City of Richmond or the Counties of Henrico and Chesterfield.


2.  On the national scale, one can look at the Houston NUR and other NURs in Texas. Texas DOT is the most powerful state highway agency in the Untied States.  When you add oil money and congressional power to the mix, road builders' wildest dreams are fulfilled. For an amusing contemporary summary see "Houston Puts on Game Face: City Spruces Itself Up for the Super Bowl," by Lee Hockstader, The Washington Post, 29 January 2004 .


3.  An effective way to consider who is really to blame would be to recall your university's first assembly of the freshman class at which the dean of students would ask students to look to their left and then look to their right. She would then intone: "One of the three of you will not be here to start spring quarter." If we could assemble the million plus residents of the Richmond NUR in one place and tell them to look to the right, look to the left, the line would be "All of you contributed to this mess."


4.  If you do not believe this, look at the reports and books published between 1960 and 1975 that focus on what SYNERGY/Planning, Inc. now calls functional and dysfunctional human settlement patterns. There is a library full of these volumes. Look at the text of the displays in the visitor centers of Planned New Communities started between 1965 and 1975. They said move here and avoid what now make Richmond NUR dysfunctional and unsustainable.


5.  This process creates a regional sketch plan which identifies a draft Clear Edge (singular) around the urbanized area around the cores of the region. It also identifies the cores of the (five to ten) potential Balanced Communities within this Clear Edge. The sketch plan would also identify the Clear Edges (plural) around the urban enclaves that exist in the Countryside outside the Clear Edge around the core and the boundaries of the disaggregated, Balanced Communities that exist in the Countryside. 


6. There is no way to tell now how many potential Balanced Communities there will be in the Richmond NUR; however, it is clear the boundaries around these Balanced Communities will bear little resemblance to the borders of the current municipalities -- counties, cities or towns. This is because urban expansion over the past 80 years put the uses that will now logically form the new cores of Balanced Communities at the edge of municipalities and located limited-access roadways through the middle of existing cores. Limited-access roadways, unless they are decked over, belong on the edges of organic urban components, not at the center.  It is also clear that the potential Balanced Communities will not be defined by the districts of the temporary regional agency.


-- February 16, 2004











































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.