Edge Cities

Until the Depression, Virginia was predominantly a rural state with a few towns in each county plus a handful of larger cities. Rural dwellers would schedule shopping trips to the towns and, perhaps, the large cities several times a year. Stores recognized the seasons - farmers could afford to pay off loans and make big purchases in the Fall, after harvest. Most food in the grocery stores was locally grown, and in the winter only a few specialty items were shipped in from Florida, California, and the Southern hemisphere. An orange in the Christmas stocking was a treat, and strawberries were unavailable in the winter.

Since then, growth of urban areas has been dramatic. Virginia's population has more than doubled, and now 80% of Virginians live in a town, city or urbanized county. Transportation improvements allow commuters to travel from Winchester and Fredericksburg to jobs in Fairfax and Washington, DC., or from Caroline and Powhatan counties to jobs in Richmond. The produce in the grocery store is radically different, as a result of a global economy and worldwide transportation enhancements.

Despite that population shift, no large urban central city developed in Virginia after Roanoke 120 years ago. For the last 75 years, since the start of Calgary, Alberta, no large central city has developed in North America. Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos were created de novo by the Manhattan Project, but have remained small.

After the start of World War II, Tidewater and Northern Virginia counties grew rapidly but cities were largely frozen in their boundaries. In Tidewater, several counties merged with existing cities (Elizabeth City County and Hampton in 1952, Norfolk County and South Norfolk in 1963) or obtained independent charters as cities (Princess Anne in 1963). Warwick County became Warwick City in 1952, then merged with Newport News in 1958. Nansemond County became the City of Nansemond in 1972, then merged with the City of Suffolk in 1974. These political realignments were designed to thwart efforts of Norfolk to expand via annexation of its neighbors.

As a result of the explosive suburban growth around Richmond and in Tidewater and Northern Virginia, and the limits to annexation, a new form of population center has emerged. Unincorporated communities such as Tysons Corner have become major employment centers with as much Class A office space and quality retail shopping as Miami, but with no community-specific elected officials other than the county supervisors. Joel Garreau has labelled these "Edge Cities," because they develop on the edge of existing metropolitan centers. They provide all the services associated with a central city, and largely replace the experience of going "downtown," but lack the poitical structure of being an independent local government.

Edge Cities require good transportation, especially automobile-based access. When you hear the traffic reporters in Northern Virginia refer to Springfield or Gainesville, or in Richmond refer to Short Pump, you're hearing the name of Edge Cities or what developers anticipate will emerge as Edge Cities. Land use planners may also cite them as examples of sprawl funded by highway projects. In the 1970's, the approval of the new Interstate 285 circling Richmond was delayed by the Carter Administration. It was aware that each interchange west of Richmond was likely to develop rapidly, sucking away the potential for revitalizing the central city and eastern end of Richmond.

Though the term "Edge City" was not popularized until a decade ago, back in the mid-1950's geographer Jean Gottman had identified the "megalopolis" of overlapping urban communities on the East Coast. Today, when discussing urban growth and the role of city governments, it is important to consider the impacts of the increasing population density along the I-95 and I-64 corridors as the megaloplis stretches from Washington south to Richmond and east to Virginia Beach.


Why Virginia's Cities and Towns Are Located Where They Are
Virginia Counties
Virginia Places