Do Virginians Still Love the Exurbs?

Map credit: Weldon Cooper Center

As a follow-up to the previous blog post, let me bring to readers’ attention the work of Hamilton Lombard, Demographics & Workforce research specialist for the Weldon Cooper Center. In a May blog post, his analysis of census data in Virginia led to this conclusion: “The recession significantly altered the growth patterns in Virginia, smoothing out growth rates across much of the state, and accelerating urban population growth in the last five years.”

Comparing the five-year periods of 2001-2006 to 2006-2011, Hamilton found that population growth in the fast-growing counties on the outer fringe of the Washington and Richmond metropolitan regions (colloquially known as the exurbs) decelerated rapidly. Populations in those counties still grew, just not nearly as fast.

Meanwhile, jurisdictions that had seen slow growth or outright declines experienced a pick-up. The map above highlights the changes. Blue jurisdictions saw the greatest decline in the rate of growth (not an absolute decline in growth), while the beige/orange shows a pick-up in, or resumption of, growth.

Hamilton’s blog post ranks the top 10 decelerators, topped by Loudoun County, which slowed from a 41.2% growth rate to a 20.1% growth rate. The biggest turn-around story was the City of Norton in the heart of the Virginia coalfields, reversing from a 6.3% decline to 12.7% growth.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is one more body of evidence that the pattern of growth and development in Virginia experienced a major inflection point during the 2007-2008 recession. This does not mean suburban growth is dead. It does mean that such growth has spent much of its energy and the the fortunes of traditional inner cities and small towns are reviving.


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  1. Interesting, the bump in the rate of growth seems very apparent in Southwest Virginia, but that region is still dependent on the coal-economy and vulnerable to both regulatory changes and the ongoing growth of natural gas. Roanoke, Lynchburg, and Southside all look to have stayed about the same, which is bad news for struggling rural Southside as it is already on the decline.

    Another trend appears to be the reorientation of growth back toward the inner Beltway of Northern Virginia.

  2. judging by the numbers for VRE commuter rail – the exurbs are not dead… not even hurt much. The rush hour traffic on I-95 is still hot and heavy most days.

    If the premise is correct, VREl and I=95 in the Fredericksburg area should start to see reductions… An interesting “complication” is the addition of HOT (congestion tolled) lanes …

    The key demographic is …. “married”. single folks or even single “couples” with no plans for kids don’t see commuting as worthwhile especially when it puts them in a “dead” zone for things folks their age like to do with their spare time.

    but “married” with the intent to have kids/family – they will continue to love the exurbs.

    and it’s a lose, lose proposition because the exurb counties get totally whacked with increased infrastructure costs – schools, fire, ems, and roads and I-95 and NoVa get whacked with all those exurban commuters …. but I don’t see this changing because people with kids want something that cannot be found affordably in the urban or even the so-called “suburban” parts of Fairfax and NoVa where a single family detached continues to be a scarce and expensive proposition.

    Before I believe that people are going to “move back”, I need to see some reasonable rationale beyond someone predicting it.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    The recession of 2008 – 2009 is still occurring (even if the economy doesn’t meet the technical definition of recession). Let’s not call an inflection point until there is an inflection in the economy.

  4. recession in the NoVA sucking of the Fed teat? Let’s get real here.

    When we talk exurbs in Va, a good part of it is exurbs where the residents commute to govt jobs.

    Here, take a look:

    Va = 5.8
    Stafford = 4.6
    Spotsylvania = 4.7

    a year ago it was: 6.5 , 5.2, 5.6 respectifully

    No recession here…

    and not likely either if you listen to the Va GOP talking about the “sequester”.

    so much for cutting the deficit, eh?

    these guys have spent 4 years blather about cutting the deficit and what have they SUPPORTED to actually cut the deficit?

    Medicare, MedicAid and Social Security but not DOD or National Defense or Homeland Security.

    what a joke.

    at any rate.. there is no recession in the NoVa exurbs…. NADA.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Perhaps you could go back and re-read the post. Is Richmond part of the data? Perhaps you could review the map. Is it a map of NoVa or a map of Virginia?

  5. looking through the data – it’s the URBAN areas in Va that have significantly higher unemployment rates than the suburbs or the exurbs.

    so what does that mean?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Why is unemployment high in the inner cities? Really? That’s your question?

  6. If the suburban/exurban areas are said to be in trouble – why do they have superior unemployment numbers?

    yeah.. it was/is sort of a “duh” question, I admit it but the point is that the suburb/exurbs in Va are driven at least in part by people who do have jobs, good jobs and want to live not in urban areas.

  7. DJRippert Avatar


    You’ve got to watch the material that Jim Bacon posts carefully. While Jim provides fair and unbiased information not all of the sources he quotes do the same. For example, there are two groups who really want people to believe that there is an observable migration back into the cities:

    (a) The Green Crowd – They believe that packing people into high density areas is good for the environment.

    (b) Gentlemen Farmers – Like the PEC. These people live in rural areas but rarely personally engage in farming or ranching. They may rent their land to real farmers but their time is spent at the local polo grounds. They fear the suburbs encroaching on their lifestyle and really wish the economic and social inferiors would just move into the cities and stay there.

    (c) The Anti-Tax Crowd – This group wants to limit government spending by insisting that the future is too uncertain to justify spending. Like Jim, they typically live in the suburbs. Unlike Jim, they have no intention of ever moving into a city. However, it serves their purpose to claim that trends are pointing to the futility of building new roads or rail because people are going back to a Medieval lifestyle where they live, work and play in the village and walk or ride horses (today it’s bikes) as transportation.

  8. Here’s my sense of what’s going on, subject to revision as more data comes in. Ehrenhalt is correct to talk about an “inversion” in U.S. metro areas. More educated and affluent people are moving closer to the urban core while poorer and less educated people are moving out of the inner city into aging and decrepit suburbs.

    Developers follow the migration of the affluent, building places that will appeal to them. Developers don’t follow the migration of the poor — the poor simply move into properties that the affluent no longer want to live in any more. The net result is some densification in urban areas. But that densification is not sufficient to absorb the entire growth in population. Therefore, there will continue to be some development in localities on the metropolitan fringe — especially in fast-growing metros like Washington.

    The shift in emphasis back to the urban core does not mean that *all* growth and development is occurring in the core — just that a significantly higher percentage of growth and development is occurring there than in decades past.

    What is driving this shift? I think it’s deep-rooted cultural and economic changes related to the rise of the knowledge economy.

  9. I think it might be simply 1. Rethinking of the big house as an investment strategy after the 2007-2008 debacle, especially by younger people. They will eventually want a house as they get married and start a family. But they see that a lot of those big houses in the exurbs are hard to unload when the real estate market is soft (as opposed to 2004-2007 when it was overheated). A recognition that the house in the exurbs is a riskier and more volatile investment than a house in the close suburbs. 2. Environmental idealism of young people, particularly the well-educated. All these years of environmental education have created a greater sensitivity to environmental issues and particularly the environmental and geopolitical costs of oil.

  10. Okay….. time to fish or cut bait…

    Are Bacon and Richard saying – that knowledge economy workers who get married and have kids are now staying in the urban areas and no longer commuting to the suburbs?

    Is there some evidence of this or are you speculating ?

    I’m in an exurb that has seen phenomenal growth of VRE – twice it’s original projection – and the increase in growth continued through the recession … I’m also seeing large expansions of existing commuter lots and creation of new ones.

    I do not see much change – although the rate of growth has slowed.

    We have about 300,000 people in our region and maybe half are working age and about 40-50% commute – some on VRE, some solo on I-95 and some carpool, vanpool or ride buses.

    VRE is maxed as is I-95 but they still come…..and virtually all of them are looking for “green” and “smart” – standard, cul-de-saced traditional subdivision homes. They’re looking for good schools that have soccer and swimming… Governor school, baccalaureate and advanced placement programs, etc.

    I’ll mildly agree that SOME folks might be staying in the urban areas rather than becoming commuters but for those who think there is a big shift – I invite you don to I-95 south at prime rush hour where you can pontificate why there are some many cars.

    1. LarryG asked, “Are Bacon and Richard saying – that knowledge economy workers who get married and have kids are now staying in the urban areas and no longer commuting to the suburbs?”

      I’m not saying that, and I doubt Richard is either. Your statement implies that we’re saying that *all* knowledge economy workers are going urban. I am saying that *some* are — more than in the past. I’m talking about a trend, not a mass migration. But the trend is pretty strong.

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