High Cotton: When Virginia’s Counties Hit Their Peak

If you grew up in one of Northern Virginia's Historical PopulationVirginia’s suburban counties, such as Prince William, or in any of Virginia’s metro areas, you likely grew up with the impression that growth is as certain as the seasons. For decades, many counties in Virginia have grown relentlessly, constructing thousands of homes each year to house new residents. With more residents come more schools, roads, offices and shops. Except for the hard times around the Civil War, Virginia’s population as a whole has grown continuously since it was a colony.

But outside Virginia’s largest urban areas, population growth is not a fact of life. In 2013, the population of most of Virginia’s counties and cities had declined from when it peaked in the past.Peak Population3

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As more families choose cities, governments are returning to the drawing board

Urban areas import the young and export the old, the theory goes, or went. For decades, young people have come to Virginia’s urban areas to go to university or work, often moving out again when their children require more space or education, or when they retire. But, since the mid 2000s, a demographic change has slowed the conveyor belt of movement in and out of cities. More young families are staying in Virginia’s urban areas to raise their children and enroll them in local schools, fueling the strongest population growth many of Virginia’s urban areas have experienced since the 1950s.

Though many young couples in the past have started families while they lived in urban areas, a good number would move to suburban counties before enrolling their children in school. In urban school divisions such as Arlington County and Fredericksburg, fewer than 60 percent of children born in 1999 showed up in first grade in 2005. The large number of young families moving into suburban school divisions caused many more children to enroll in first grade in counties such as Spotsylvania and Chesterfield than were born there six years earlier.2005 Ratio

Source: Virginia Department of Education Fall Count, Virginia Department of Health Live Births, tabulated by the Weldon Cooper Center

Today, many parents are staying put in urban areas, thanks to stricter mortgage regulations that make it hard for buyers to get a loan, and a difficult labor market that makes it hard for anyone to be sure of a job. One-third as many homes were sold in 2012 as in 2005 in Virginia. During the same period, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that the number of Virginia families with children who live in a rented  residence has increased 15 percent.

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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.

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