The Shrinking Cities Movement Comes to Virginia

The flip side of “smart growth” is “smart shrinkage.”

USA Today examines how the city of Richmond is dealing with its declining population: downsizing gracefully, as it were. Following the lead of hundreds of European cities, where populations are shrinking, many American cities are reinventing themselves as well.

“Everybody’s talking about smart growth, but nobody is talking about smart decline,” says Terry Schwarz, senior planner at Kent State University’s Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio. The center runs the Shrinking Cities Institute in Cleveland, a city that has lost more than half its population since 1950. “There’s nothing that says that a city that has fewer people in it has to be a bad place.”

It’s a startling admission in a nation that has always equated growth with success. Cities are downsizing by returning abandoned neighborhoods to nature and pulling the plug on expensive services to unpopulated areas. Some have stopped pumping water, running sewer lines and repaving roads in depopulated neighborhoods. They’re turning decimated areas into parks, wildlife refuges or bike trails. They’re tearing down homes no one is living in and concentrating development where people want to move.

The problem of shrinking city populations in the United States is not as acute as in Europe, where fertility rates have plummeted nationally and immigration has been limited. But household sizes are getting smaller in the U.S., meaning that even cities with the same number of households support a population. USA Today portrays the City of Richmond as a city that is handling the transition well.

Money quote from Greg Wingfield with the Greater Richmond Partnership:

The city wants to grow, but it’s not waiting for a population boom, says Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of Greater Richmond Partnership Inc., an economic development marketing group. “We don’t as a region aspire to be the next Atlanta or the next Charlotte,” he says. “It’s about quality. It’s not about growing for the sake of growing.”

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25 responses to “The Shrinking Cities Movement Comes to Virginia”

  1. Ta Da!

    You think some of NOVA’s transportation problems would be solved with half as many people and half as many jobs?

    Try driving into Arlington any day this week, and see how easy it is when most people are someplace else or at least not at work.

    And you wouldn’t need to build any more infrastructure to do it. you could import some open space into the city, creating reverse sprawl, if you like, and you might wind up with a place whaere people want to move.

    On the other hand those half as many people would have to pay twice as much per each to maintain what they have. One way to redistribute the governments income is to redistribute the people that provide it.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    One of the problems facing our cities is that their governments tend to cater to public sector labor unions. These relationships otherwise be and result in the provision of lower quality services to residents. Witness Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD.

    Cities and city leaders need to give up the past and work to delivering quality services in an efficent manner, including contracting for services and dropping those that should be dropped.

    While these steps would not stop all of the population losses, they would likely make cities more attractive to more people of all income levels.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I have a slightly different “take” on the phenomena – American Style. If you take a drive into the non-urban areas of Virginia and to a certain extent much of the rest of American – you will see startling declines in towns and smaller cities that used to have manufacturing jobs.

    Many of these places are to coin a term the “walking dead” in terms of an economic future – and the kids – they are leaving to come to areas like NoVa for jobs.

    We ARE shifting from manufacturing and Assembly jobs to information and service jobs.

    Martinsville, Va is considering reverting back to town status following Clifton Forge – another town that has lost manufacturing.

    I don’t think we’re going to see major urban employment centers… downsize in this Country.. I think the trend is the other way… and I don’t see Martinsville and Clifton Forge with a shortage of city parks and the like… but perhaps I don’t have the right perspective on this….

    Also.. I wonder .. if Virginia is downsizing in terms of manufacturing jobs.. what the heck are we actually EXPORTING through OUR Ports?

    I would see our ports as strategic investments worthy of citizen tax dollars (subsidies) if it were the KEY to JOBS in Martinsville and Clifton Forge but if our ports are more about importing goods for sale that were manufactured overseas with cheap labor… why should we use public monies for that purpose?

    I’m probably ignorant about this… so would welcome.. “education” efforts… 🙂

  4. E M Risse Avatar


    Print out the USA Today story and this post and the comments.

    Go through and cross out the word “city” and replace it with a full description of the geographic reality. There will be “The City of Richmond” but there will be the Cleveland Metro Area, the urbanized part of X County.

    Any comparisons with New Urban Regions in Europe are probably out of whack because most countries have fundamentally changed classes of urban areas and the boundaries of same. Each country has done it in a different way.

    There are a number of important observations in this string, all are clouded by misuse of the word “city.”

    Also go to Lucy and Phillips latest book (the one which has a pronogrphic title) and check out what their analysis found about the decline of the population in the Federal District of Columbia. (The majority of the loss in population is from smaller family size and due to inproved economic conditions and other factors, not mass exidus.)

    Until we get the words right and the conceptual framework right all those good ideas are lost in a sea of verbal vomit.


  5. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Lucy and Phillips work is not limited to D.C. This post from UVA Today tells more and links to their study.
    “William H. Lucy and David L. Phillips of the University of Virginia School of Architecture’s Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, based their research on data for the years 2000-2005 from the U.S. Census Bureau that surveyed cities in 35 of the largest metropolitan areas.”

    University of Virginia Study of Cities’ Revival From 2000 to 2005; Incomes of Whites in Cities Pass Suburbs

    It is time for the General Assembly to shift investing in developing greenfields and instead learn from the Richmond example. Investment should be made in developing areas where expenses are lowest. That means redeveloping cities.

    Many changes in laws enacted in the last century need changing to reflect this economic shift.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    I think the most interesting comment is that someone in Richmond is saying in public that they don’t want to be Charlotte.

    This is funny to me because as long as I can remember, Richmond has been trying to figure out a way to be MORE like Charlotte. I remember the RTD running a significant series on that very notion in the not so distant past.

    Very interesting swing. A good swing in my estimation, but a pretty big shift for the leadership of the Commonwealth’s capital.

  7. E M Risse Avatar

    Jim W.

    Good post.

    My last refelct outrage left over from a CNNMoney story about the ten Best and Worst Places to… 10 catigories and the “winners” were small townships to entire Metro areas in the same list with no indication of scale.

    Another I saw recently had housing markets “by Metro area” but had three Metro areas in the National Capital Subregion.

    In the original post most of the areas are “substantially urbanized area” with no relationship to municipal or state borders.

    Discussing human settlement pattern issues without percise terminology is like talking about bowl games without discussing the score or which team a player is on.


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    It slso allows posters like Mr. Hyde to try to fool people like us into thinking he knows what he is talking about.

    Anon Zoro and Zora

  9. “One of the problems facing our cities is that their governments tend to cater to public sector labor unions. These relationships otherwise be and result in the provision of lower quality services to residents. “

    In the book I frequently cite here Winston ad Shirly documented this with actual performance characteristics of trasit systems as related to the type of management they had, and the resulting union relationships.

    It was fascinating, and sad.

  10. “you will see startling declines in towns and smaller cities that used to have manufacturing jobs.”

    This is going to kill us some day, sooner or later somebody has to make something.

    We are shifting to information jobs, but those ought to be ultimately portable. Like someone said, why outsource to India when yu have Wise County?

    So why do these jobs insist on piling up on top of each other? It seems like we are getting more and more information at the same time we are getting dummer and dummer using it.

  11. “Investment should be made in developing areas where expenses are lowest. That means redeveloping cities.”

    Really? Then why are cities so bloody expensive and impossible to run efficiently? Show me a city where the expenses for anything are lower.

    Cities, to start with are enormous energy wasters. What is it, the sears tower uses more energy than all of Bloomington?

    I hope you are right, but I don’t see any evidence.

  12. Apparently the experts are still debating on how to measure our settlements and what to call them. This will probably go on for decades, during which time the boundaries will all shift, the economies will change, the demographics will change, and the infrastructure will deteriorate.

    Yet, we are supposed to believe that these experts can actually stay ahead of the whole process through better planning.

    LeEnfants plan for Washington was supposed to divert the armies from the White House and the Capital, and we see how well that worked.

    Anybody got a better example?

  13. Say what you like Z and Z.

    Then drive into town this week and see what I mean. If I’m wrong and it is more congested than usual, I’ll freely admit it.

    I’ve been corrected here before, and will be again. No sweat. I don’t have any axe to grind. This isn’t about me being either right or wrong, it is about searching for better answers, not just opinions backed up with more opinions.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Richmond’s problem is this:

    It is an “old money” town, conservative and resistant to change. It had a chance years ago to expand the airport and bring a large major air carrier. It did not so the carrier went to Charlotte. Charlotte began to grow.

    Charlotte’s more vigorous old money combined with younger folks to encourage a “new south” attitude and attracted more new economy business. It was aggressive and innovative and people moved their businesses and families there.

    Richmond’s business elite is fossilized – it’s old in age, ideas and energy. The best it has been able to do in the last ten years is try to build a performing arts center and some condos on the river. Pathetic. The condos should have been built 20 years ago like they were in most smaller midsize cities. Pathetic. Every healthy city has “old money” but it also has a real younger class (50s in this case) to move the city forward for the next generation. Richmond does not.

    The conservative culture has also failed to attract any siginificant high-tech industry. Can anyone really believe a truly diverse culture feeling welcome enough or finding enough interesting things to in Richmond?

    Let’s think of the following words and see if people think of Richmond? Exciting. Accepting. Innovate. Energized. Building. Smart. None of these apply.

    The only reason Richmond wants to downsize smarter is that it has failed at providing an a placxe where people and businesses want to be. It has no choice. Richmond must downsize smarter or continue on the path mediocrity.

    This city stopped moving in the early 80s.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    A few mistake in my previous post. I apologize for spelling errors.

  16. to anonymous – instead of using your energy to complain about richmond, why not help the people here who recognize the great things we have in this city to promote the preservation and restoration of what makes richmond unique and worth saving?

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Actually I took the comment about Richmond – as provocative insight behind the thinking – namely:

    “The only reason Richmond wants to downsize smarter is that it has failed at providing an a placxe where people and businesses want to be.”

    There’s an implication here that one or more “workable” strategies are not being employed – and as a result a failure in “planning” has occurred.

    I find this curious because folks in this BLOG often say that NoVa’s problem is “too many jobs” and “too many people” and “not enough infrastructure” and high taxes and a lower quality of life.

    I would think EMR would have a thought or two about this.

    But I also wonder what Richmond did NOT do that would have, at least in theory, brought it what NoVa has – (and I presume in some folks minds – a “good” thing).

    Richmond has been a rival of Charlotte in trying to be a banking center but it apparently has lost that battle. Why?

    What has Charlotte got or what did Charlotte do that Richmond does not have and/or failed to provide?

    I’ll say one thing – anyone who has been to BOTH places can tell you which one has the worse traffic. It’s Charlotte hands-down so why didn’t businesses located to any area that has less Congestion and a well-functioning transportation network?

    Lots of questions here…. I hope some folks weigh in on them… 🙂

  18. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Larry, The answer to one of your questions — why did Charlotte beat Richmond in the banking battle? — is very simple. The North Carolina legislature deregulated intra-state banking a couple of years earlier than Virginia’s legislature did. North Carolina was one of the very first states to do so, and Virginia was a closer follower — but not close enough. That meant that N.C. banks merged, consolidated and gained critical mass earlier than Virginia banks did. And when interstate banking was allowed, N.C. banks got the jump on Virginia banks in terms of cross-state mergers.

    Interestingly, when interstate banking came, N.C. banks mostly turned south and Virginia banks turned north. Virginia banks gobbled up the local banks in Maryland and D.C. But the N.C. banks grew bigger faster, and eventually they turned their sights north.

    The loss of banking headquarters to Charlotte wasn’t Richmond’s lack of competitiveness — it was the fact that Virginia wasn’t as fast as North Carolina out of the bank-deregulation starting blocks.

    As a Richmonder, I am quite satisfied with our pace of economic development, which I’d characterize as “not too hot, not too cold.” Richmond is plugging along nicely, growing incomes at roughly the same pace as the national average, growing the number of jobs and population at a modest rate. I’m darned grateful that growth is NOT outpacing the ability of the local governments to accommodate it. We don’t have a significant traffic congestion problem. Housing is less unaffordable than in NoVa or Hampton Roads. We have a wide array of cultural and recreational amenities. The pace of life is a little slower, but without being stultifying. The quality of life is excellent.

    Ultimately, what is economic development all about? Is it growth for growth’s sake? Or is the purpose to create a vibrant economy with rising incomes, a wealth of entrepreneurial opportunity and a high quality of life?

  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    ah… as they say .. TIMING is … EVERYTHING. (not like Richmond is crippled .. anyhow).

    My perception of Richmond is exactly what you relate.

    It’s a pleasant place to visit. It’s fairly easy to get around – even at rush hour.

    I come there fairly often to paddle my canoe through the downtown rapids… whoopee !!

    You can take the Powhite from I-64 to Rt 288 … no sweat….

    I-95 north is often frantic but I-95 south not so bad.

    I-64 east is tense.. west.. it’s mellow…

    (hmmm.. I-94 and I-64 … megalopolis…just like was predicted…

    So I often wonder … why NoVa and HR can’t be more like Richmond or Charlottesville or Roanoke…

    what makes both of those places so much worse by comparison… ??

    I would think that Richmond would also have it’s share of evil, greedy developers and feckless pro-growth elected officials… so what gives?

    What could we learn from Richmond that could be useful in NoVa?

    Is it something so simple – as pro-roaders claim … many more miles of pavement per capita???

  20. There has been talk of “smart decline” as a positive thing. I will hypothesize here that this is merely spin on a difficult admission — that the cities with negative population growth are less desirable places to live than the places with positive population growth. In effect, they are “worse” cities, and they will continue to shrink until they 1) get their act together and 2) let people know they are fixed.

    I base this hypothesis on the revealed preferences when people move. You can look at population migration statistics as a rough measure of which cities are “getting it right” — more specifically, where people feel something about that city makes it great enough to warrant the effort of actually moving. Opinion surveys and speculation are great to discuss, but it is entirely different to look at what people are actually doing as opposed to what they are saying they will do.

    For a better explanation of this, please check out this article by Howard Wall, an economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

  21. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Geoff, That’s an interesting article by Howard Wall. But I’m not persuaded that it does much to advance the understanding of inner city dynamics. The problem is that Wall is comparing metropolitan statistical areas, not central city jurisdictions.

    In the case of Richmond (and many other central jurisdictions), the driving force behind the decline in population is a decline in average household size — not a generalized flight from the city. If you have the same number of dwellings but the average household size decreases, you’ll displace people. When a city like Richmond is unable to expand its jurisdictional boundaries, that means you push people into surrounding jurisdictions.

    The fact is, redevelopment in downtown Richmond and adjacent neighborhoods has contributed to a meaningful expansion of the housing stock. Developers have had little trouble finding buyers/renters. For sure, the city still has its problem areas, but the city overall is prospering.

  22. Jim,

    While I understand the argument you are making, the statistics I’ve found at the Census bureau do not support your theory. Richmond, as defined by the political boundary (city), has been a net out-migration area throughout both the 90’s and 2000-2004. This statistic only looks at people actually moving… so declining birth rate cannot explain this.

    More people are moving out of Richmond than moving in, which, when looked at through revealed preference theory, indicates that people still view Richmond as a “bad” city to live in.

  23. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Geoff, Declining household size is not a reflection only of declining fertility rates. It reflects the increasing incidence (within the city) of singles, double-income-no-kid families, gay households, single-parent families, etc. It also reflects the parallel trend of conversion of multi-family dwellings to single-family dwellings.

    Take a building in the Fan — it used to be a duplex, then it gets converted to a single-family residence. Two or three people get displaced. To find housing, they move out to Henrico County. The move doesn’t reflect a “preference” of Henrico over Richmond, it reflects the changing nature of the housing stock.

  24. Jim,

    I believe what you are describing is *exactly* a preference for Henrico over Richmond. If the displaced people wanted to stay in Richmond, they could have looked for housing — which would likely be more expensive in your scenario because there is less of it. Instead, they moved to Henrico.

    Additionally, I do not think it best to think of the housing stock as fixed units as you seem to be indicating — larger families could always move into single-family homes, 3 people could split a 2 bedroom apartment, etc. This is what is happening in Manassas, for example, so much so that they passed strict housing ordinances to attempt to prevent it. Even though the housing stock was limited, so many people wanted to live in Manassas that they were willing to live in cramped conditions. I think that is most definitely preference at work.

    If more people wanted to live in Richmond, they would have found a way to do it. Instead, what is happening is people are choosing to leave the city.

  25. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Okay – so I’ll ask a question.

    Is what is being described an any different dynamic than central DC (or Arlington) and the surrounding suburban jurisdictions? (or take Charlottesville or Charlotte, etc)

    My perception is that Richmond is not much different in the out-migration from central city to surrounding MSA.

    Am I wrong?

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