The Fickle Patterns of Population Growth

Map credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service
Map credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. (Click for bigger image.)
Image credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service
Image credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Except for a brief period during the Civil War, the population of Virginia has increased steadily as long as anyone has kept track. But the pattern of growth varied as the nation evolved from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial economy and then to a knowledge-based economy. Many once-dynamic jurisdictions have gone into decline and, bucking the overall statewide trend, have lost population.

Hamilton Lombard with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has published a fascinating map showing the decades of peak population for Virginia’s cities and counties, as seen above. While roughly half the state’s cities and counties reached peak population last year in 2013 (no numbers yet for 2014), large swaths reached their apogee decades ago. Indeed seven counties saw their glory years in the 1800s. Amelia County’s heyday was 1790.

Lombard’s article traces population growth through the tobacco era, the New South industrialization and the rise of independent cities. A couple of patterns strike me from my eyeballing of the map:

  • Many of Virginia’s larger “cities” — Norfolk, Richmond, Portsmouth, Roanoke peaked in the 1960-1970 era before urban decay white/middle-class flight set in.
  • The coalfields of Southwest Virginia reached their zenith in the 1950s after decades of growth in the coal industry, although a couple of counties didn’t peak until the coal revival of the 1970s.
  • Much of Southside Virginia peaked in the 1920s-50s, although a couple of mill towns — Danville and Martinsville — and their neighboring counties continued growing until 1980.
  • Not all growth has been concentrated in the Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads metropolitan regions. The Interstate 81 corridor stretching between Winchester, Roanoke and Bristol has provided a secondary locus of population growth (with the main exception being Rockbridge County).

Bacon’s bottom line:

Beware ye, exurban counties, who think ye shall grow forever. Fortunes change.


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6 responses to “The Fickle Patterns of Population Growth”

  1. I don’t’ see them as much fickle as I do our lack of understanding of them.

    In the early history of this country – the places that grew were the places that were accessible by boat and had local access to natural resources or agriculture and human labor.

    All up an down rivers – towns and cities grew up…. and canals went around rapids to extend trade and commerce further up the rivers.

    I’d bet we’d be hard-pressed to find an older city that was not on water.

    The voyagers grew cities like Chicago and St. Louis and New Orleans..

    Lewis & Clark went through vast wilderness that had no towns or cities – at the same time St. Louis was already a booming town – as was Bismark, ND – both on major rivers.

    and that’s the way much of the country looked – .. until rail…

    then rail created many more cities and towns.

    In fact, I would ask what a map would look like today – if we removed all the places that got started as a water or rail town – I think the map would have large swatches of empty.

    exurban places – in my view – are totally different and actually driven by cities themselves rather than places that were born as a result of trade and commerce.

    and I’m not sure that they will ever go away – now that we have transportation links to them… especially if eventually we’re going to more and more fuel efficient vehicles..

  2. erikcurren Avatar

    James — Great story, but I wonder if you want to re-check the map where you’re looking at the Valley? You say that “The Interstate 81 corridor stretching between Winchester, Roanoke and Bristol has provided a secondary locus of population growth (with the main exception being Augusta County).” But I think you mean to say the exception is Rockbridge County, not Augusta. And I’d like to know why that County didn’t grow as the Valley county on either side of it did.

    Meanwhile, the bigger point is a good one: like NOVA or Hampton Roads, much of the growth in these traditionally rural counties along I-81 was exurban sprawl. So I wonder if this corridor will also face a slowdown or even reversal of growth in the future as the suburban model continues to fall apart?

    1. Thanks for the correction. I should know better! I’ll make the fix.

      I don’t think the reversal of “exurban sprawl” will have much impact on the total population growth of the I-81 corridor — just where the growth occurs. Hopefully, the locus of growth will shift back to the towns and cities along the Interstate.

  3. Jim – While I have not read the report that was the background for the map, the population growth for many cities in the post WWII era up to the mid-1980s was due, in part, to annexation. For example, Danville had a large annexation in the mid-1980s. Staunton and Waynesboro, too, about the same time although annexation by agreement with Augusta County.

    Further, there are some who subscribe to the grow back theory where the county affected by city annexation will experience a surge of growth after the boundary change as business and residents move out of the municipality and into the low tax, etc. county. That may be reflected in the growth of some counties.


  4. ^ Correct – there is a discussion of annexation’s effect on this map if you read the article.

    I would add to Bacon’s Bottom Line: “Beware ye counties that stake all your economic hopes on one particular big factory or industry or piece of infrastructure… like defense contracting… or a highway… or coal.”

    1. Indeed. OUr local BOS got briefed the other night from Davenport who advises them on their credit ratings.. and they yearn for that AAA rating that only about 7 counties in Va have.

      And the man told them – that when they generated more local economic development and depended less on exurban commuters to jobs in NoVa – their credit rating might advance – i.e. with very little local economy – no matter how careful they were with their money -they’d never get to AAA.

      Further they said that Fairfax… which is AAA was in a negative outlook – because of the downsizing of the Fed Govt.

      so yes – I agree with both Bacon and New Virginia – if you do not have a robust and diverse local economy – and depend on one industry – you are vulnerable.

      but then I think and perhaps others can weigh in –

      Name the 3 cities in Va with the most DIVERSE and VERSATILE economies.

      is it NOVa? or Richmond or Hampton?

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