Virginia Demographic Projections: Read the Fine Print

Projected population growth from 2010 to 2020. Map credit: Weldon Cooper Center

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has just released its Virginia population projections for 2020, and there aren’t many surprises. Growth, according to this report, will continue much as it has in past decades, with the fastest growth taking place (a) in the larger metropolitan regions, especially the urban crescent, and (b) in exurban jurisdictions.

Northern Virginia will continue to grow the most rapidly — though at a much slower rate — followed by the Richmond region. Southside and Southwest Virginia will barely grow at all.

Graphic credit: Weldon Cooper Center.

But the projections come with a big caveat. Writes Michele Claibourn:

Projections about the future are always fraught with uncertainty; many relevant factors could change in ways no one foresees. These population projections rely on the assumption that future population is a function of the past demographic trends. They aren’t forecasts or predictions based on alternative scenarios, but represent a likely outcome should current trends continue uninterrupted.

I wouldn’t want to be in the demographers’ shoes. Virginia planners need population forecasts in order to plan. Someone has to make those forecasts, and the lot has fallen to Weldon Cooper. The demographers have to make a forecast based on the information they have available.

Unfortunately, as I have argued persistently on this blog, we cannot count on current trends continuing uninterrupted.

The Demographics & Workforce group is probably correct to assume that population growth will be stronger in the major metropolitan regions than in rural counties and mill towns. Growth projection for the eight large regions are probably reasonable. But I think the demographers are mistaken to project continued growth in counties on the metropolitan edge, as shown on the map.

The United States has reached an inflection point in which market forces are pushing a significant share of commercial and residential development back toward the metropolitan core. We will see far more re-development and densification this decade than in past decades. Taking Weldon Cooper’s projections as gospel could lead to the misallocation of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending at the state and local levels.

Planners, beware. Heed Weldon Cooper’s caveat regarding uncertainty.


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13 responses to “Virginia Demographic Projections: Read the Fine Print”

  1. what stunning is this – it’s in the italicized caveat – ” future projections are primarily based on past trends”.

    you’d think that on a subject so important because it is used to determine things like major new highways and other capital infrastructure – that with today’s computational capabilities that we would have advanced farther than that.

    I sit on a transportation citizens group where we are shown long-term transportation plans – that are based on population growth predictions …. and I find it laughable that our methods are openly admitted to not be able to accommodate major changes in growth trends.

    we’re talking 20-30 horizons that involve billions of dollars of commitment to infrastructure – and the best we can do is look at past trends and continue the graph.

  2. Whether the overall growth levels are realistic, I don’t know. However, it strikes me growth will continue in the outer suburbs/exurbs of D.C. (for NoVA). There will continue to be growth in urban areas, including newer ones, such as Tysons or Baileys Crossroads. But Fairfax County is largely built out, save these Transit Oriented Development areas, and assuming the semi-rural areas – e.g., Great Falls, Clifton, are protected. I am also assuming continued in-fill development, but no large-scale densification of suburban (say 1/4 acre lots). Also contributing to my conclusion is the County’s goal to obtain/retain at least 10% open space in the county.
    With more teleworking, we could sustain these growth patterns.

  3. right. but population growth has infrastructure implications. That’s one of the primary purposes of growth “projections”.

    In the exurbs – we talk about new schools and new EMS/Fire and new VRE stations, etc…

    Down our way – I-95 is a much discussed, more reviled subject.

    We don’t think of it as the primary East Coast corridor.

    Nope.. it’s the commute road to NoVa!

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    What is the difference between “central” and “Richmond?”
    Slowing growth rates in NOVA could be a much needed breather.
    There are other aspects — the loss of people in the coalfields and the Danville area. I know that’s been going on for a while but dos it mean they’ll just get poorer? Ditto Eastern Shore.

    1. I think “Central” refers to Charlottesville/Lynchburg in Weldon Cooper parlance.

      As for the connection between population growth/loss and income, I can’t say. But it’s a reasonable hypothesis that people leave certain regions (Southside, Southwest) because opportunities are meager and incomes are lower.

  5. claibourn Avatar

    We, at the Cooper Center, are happy to see people talking about projections! I’d like to add a few comments, if I may. First, the projections aren’t just “continuing the graph,” though the past trends are the piece of information about which we know the most and that is uniformly available across all localities. Second, Central region here refers to the strip of localities east of the Blue Ridge and ranging from Bedford and Campbell at the south end to Rappahannock and Culpeper at the north end (Louisa is the easternmost county included in the region).

    Finally, I’d add that even though the future is unknown, projections based on the past and current trends still have a place in planning. Consider the analogy to projecting life expectancy (to be a little bit morbid). Nobody knows at what age he or she will die, but we could project a rough range, based on the past and current life expectancy of an individual’s gender and race, past and current health conditions, and family history of health and age of death, etc. Such a projection doesn’t incorporate the utility of future medical advances that might enable a given individual to live longer; nor does it incorporate his or her idiosyncratic physiology, or the likelihood of getting hit by a bus. Still, while the projected life expectancy is uncertain, one can use it in making financial or retirement plans.

    Uncertainty, in this case, is a good thing. Projections are not destiny; the future is changeable. Just as we can change our health habits and behaviors to alter our life expectancy, planners can actively plan for a more desirable future based on such reference projections. Projections like those we’ve produced at the Cooper Center provide a common, broad frame of what future population could look like as well as a platform for instituting future change.

    Thanks for picking this up and keeping an interesting conversation about Virginia’s future going.

  6. I’d like to thank Calibourne for weighing in…

    and in if you are still reading…..

    I’ve often asked my local MPO when they are using population projections and talking about more compact settlement patterns and how that can affect things like the threshold for viable transit….

    do they or Weldon Cooper or anyone else ..when they project population.. can they/do they also show how growth allocates geographically?

    My MPO tells me that they look at the locality Comp Plans to figure out how growth will allocate – but no maps showing the link between projected growth – and how it allocates.

    I’m not expecting much.. more than an admission that we cannot do that… but thought it worth asking..

  7. DJRippert Avatar


    Your bias is showing. I know you want to see a rebirth of the urban core. It would let you continue arguing for smaller state government, less state government spending and (most importantly) lower taxes for you. While I see nothing wrong with this, I have to wonder if this bias is clouding your ability to give people with alternate views a fair shake.

    You put a great deal of faith in the rebound of urban populations over the last 10 years. There are certainly facts to support this rebound. However, demographics are destiny. The “echo boomers” are a major demographic trend and they have been moving through their twenties for the last 10 years. This demographic bulge is, as usual, driving urban demand. Single people and newly married couples love the convenience, night life and overall feel of the city. Yet, just as a piglet travels through the digestive system of a python so too the “echo boomers” will travel through the “digestive system” of life in America. Children will be born, good schools will be sought, two income families will become one income families and the allure of the bright city lights will fade.

    Isn’t this a real possibility? In fact, isn’t extrapolating past trends a better idea then inventing new trends from very limited time series data on a particular demographic (echo boomers).

    The much bigger question is where the baby boomers will retire. That demographic has yet to play out. If you believe that the Baby Boom started with people born in 1946 then the oldest Boomers are just now turning 66. The next 20 years will see an almost endless line of additional Baby Boomers streaming into retirement. Where will they go?

    You have a personal bias for the city. You once even tried to be an urban homesteading in Richmond. However, you are one person. You didn’t stay downtown and I’ll bet most of the other urban homesteaders didn’t either. What basis do you have to believe that your fellow Boomers will follow you into the downtowns of cities across the USA? I see a lot more people leaving Chicago for Naples, FL than I see people in Schamburg moving to Lincoln Park.

    You criticize groups for using past trends to make future projections. Yet you don’t even have past trends. You have some pop sociology about the so-called Creative Class and your own desire to move back downtown.

    TMT questions the possibility of densification of suburban areas. You believe in the densification of urban areas. Is there some way to reconcile these two views?

    Personally, I think the fast growing “retirement class” will move to small towns and cities, especially if they have good medical facilities. In Virginia, look for Charlottesville to be a bit of a boom town – perhaps justifying that bypass you hate.

    I also think the Echo Boomers will eventually get married, have kids and head to the ‘Burbs.

    In other words, I think past trends will roughly continue with the proviso that I believe the Echo Boomers will do a better job of things than their parents did. So, when they move to the ‘Burbs I believe it will be in favor of Transit Oriented Development areas. Not the citiy but not the sprawling suburbs of Leave It To Beaver fame either.

    Why am I wrong?

  8. re: ” I believe the Echo Boomers will do a better job of things than their parents did. So, when they move to the ‘Burbs I believe it will be in favor of Transit Oriented Development areas. Not the citiy but not the sprawling suburbs of Leave It To Beaver fame either.”

    what would lead one to believe this? I can see a single person living in a TOD by why commute to the burbs to do that? I cannot see mom/dad/kids doing that. They move to the burbs to get that subdivision house.

    that’s a conundrum.

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    Bacon has always been right in saying that people like walkable communities. However, parents also like functioning schools and safe streets. The TODs provide a hybrid that one can observe people enjoying in Reston (for example). I also believe that the cost of transportation will become so high that people will be hard pressed to commute great distances.

  10. “Personally, I think the fast growing “retirement class” will move to small towns and cities, especially if they have good medical facilities. ”

    This will be one of the major trends. Lower cost of living; higher overall quality of life; less stress.

  11. re: retirement class

    TMT is right. We are getting overrun with NOVA geezers down this way.

    It’s one retirement “community” after another!

    they move here to get away from the NOVa rat race and high property taxes and to be close to their kids and grand kids.

    we have two rush hours down this way.

    One is for the commuters headed up I-95 to their jobs.

    then when they’re done – the retirement geezers take over the roads on their way to shopping, doctor, AARP meetings, and volunteering.

    I’d invite DJ down this way to stand on the street corner in one of those retirement communities and blather “Greedy Grays”.

    that boy would be dogmeat in seconds!


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The Greedy Grays move pretty slow. They can be kept at bay even if you don’t have a 20 or 30 round clip.

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