Virginia Population Estimates Show Impact of Aging, Resurgence of Cities

Every year, the Cooper Center produces the official population estimates for the commonwealth of Virginia. The current estimates are based on changes since the 2010 census in housing stock, school enrollment, births, deaths, and driver’s licenses. They are used by state and local government agencies in revenue sharing, funding allocations, planning and budgeting.

Since 2010, Virginia has grown faster than the nation, growing by 2.3% between the 2010 census and July 2, 2012, to nearly 8.2 million residents. Within Virginia, the largest population gains continue to be concentrated in the urban centers of Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads. And much of Virginia’s overall growth remains driven by the rapid growth of Northern Virginia, with 54% of the state’s growth between 2010 and 2012 occurring in NoVA.

Figure 1. Numerical Population Change, 2010-2012

Numerical Change 2010-2012

Although many growth patterns in the population estimates appear to be the continuation of past trends – Northern Virginia’s continued growth, stagnant growth and population loss in more rural areas of the state—the 2012 estimates also show signs of population aging and renewed growth in Virginia’s independent cities.

Signs of Population Aging

Due to a combination of population aging as well as lower birth rates, 64 of Virginia’s 134 localities (48%) experienced more deaths than births, or natural decrease, between 2010 and 2012. Most of the counties with natural decrease were in the Southwest and Southside regions of the state. While most localities gained sufficient population through migration to compensate for losses through natural decrease, 26 localities in Virginia had a net overall loss in population between 2010 and 2012. Eleven of these localities experienced both natural decrease and net out-migration.

Renewed Growth in Virginia’s Cities

Between 2000 and 2010, Virginia’s counties grew much faster than its cities: as a whole, counties gained 17% in total population over the past decade compared to 5% growth in cities. These growth patterns appear to be converging. At the national level, the 2011 population estimates suggested that there may be a slowing of ex-urban growth with a resurgence of population growth in urban areas, and we saw similar patterns in Virginia. These growth patterns have continued through 2012.

Since 2010, the overall growth in Virginia’s independent cities has matched the county growth rate, with many independent cities among the fastest-growing localities. In addition to NoVA cities such as Arlington and Manassas, Covington, Lexington, Harrisonburg, Winchester, Charlottesville, and Staunton were among the independent cities growing at a faster rate than the state since 2010.

These trends may reflect long-lasting influences of the recession on housing markets and the doubling-up of families in households to help make ends meet during a down economy, but these are not the only influences on urban growth. Empty nesters looking to downsize and live near amenities, as well as Millennials skeptical of the housing market and more interested in living in urban environments than suburban environments, may be more interested in cities than suburbs. While not all of Virginia’s independent cities may be truly “urban,” they typically offer more amenities and services than their neighboring rural counties.

To the extent that current population growth in cities reflects economic realities combined with real cultural and social change, we might expect Virginia’s independent cities to continue to grow in the coming years.

Rebecca Tippett is a Research Associate at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service where she studies household economic well-being and produces population estimates and projections.