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Richmond's Impending Drought

The development potential in Chesterfield County is 11 more Brandermills.


For fast-growing metropolitan areas, the human equivalent of severe drought is loss of open space. Like drought, land consumption spreads quietly though persistently. Like a tree whose growth is imperceptible from one day to the next, drought and land consumption also grow larger each day, but the increments are so small that they are virtually invisible. Development eventually becomes an issue once a critical mass of frustration emerges when people lured to the newer suburbs by beautiful landscapes learn that adjacent fields and forests will soon be cleared for development; when they begin to spend more of their life in the car; pay higher travel costs for essential daily activities; and negotiate increasingly higher volumes of traffic on once-rural roads.

In the Richmond area, like most metropolitan areas across the country, the highest rates of land development are in exurbs accessible only by multilane expressways. Because these places are auto-dependent, and because public infrastructure is extended to new development remote from areas already developed, the prevailing land-use pattern is low-density noncontiguous growth that cuts up the land.

While land changes from day to day are virtually invisible, the cumulative effect of development over several years can be startling. Development in metropolitan Richmond has grown to the point that someone must ask, "Is metropolitan Richmond moving toward a drought of undeveloped land?"

Any forecast must be based on past and current trends. The trend lines of Richmond are disturbing. In the five years between 1992 and 1997, according to the most recent metropolitan-level natural resources inventory undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Richmond area developed about 60,000 acres — about 10,000 acres more than Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads.

Moreover, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads consumed less land, yet did so with greater population growth. Richmond's land consumption expanded faster than population growth. Every newcomer to the Richmond region consumed an average of 1.2 acres. The amount of land converted to urban uses amounted to 1.3 acres per hour, 24 hours a day, every day for five years.

If future residential and commercial development consumes land at the rate registered between 1992 and 1997, and if population projections prove accurate, the loss of natural resources to urban uses will be staggering. The 2004 population estimate for Richmond was 915,243. Projected population by the year 2030 will be 1,206,801. Using a methodology developed by Dr. Gary Johnson, Virginia Commonwealth University emeritus professor of urban studies and planning, one could anticipate that, based on the USDA finding of 1.2 acres consumed per newcomer, an additional 349,870 acres or 546 square miles of raw land will converted to houses, offices and malls. The city of Richmond operates on 60 square miles, thus making the amount of projected land consumption equivalent to nine Richmonds.

In Chesterfield County alone, as of Jan. 1, according to the county's development potential database, vacant land already zoned residential has a potential of 44,050 additional housing units. Brandermill today has roughly 3,700 housing units, so the potential in Chesterfield is 11 more Brandermills. Meanwhile, land zoned commercial has the potential of an additional 75 million square feet of development. The Empire State Building has 2.5 million square feet. The potential, therefore, equates to 30 Empire State Buildings, and that is just one locality in the eight-locality planning district.

Unmanaged growth lies at the crux of so many other serious problems we can see in metropolitan Richmond. In addition to the loss of open space, clogged roads and more auto emissions, residential growth usually fails to pay for itself unless it is high-end housing, which shuts out low/moderate-income populations. Sprawl also segregates, thus contributing to the concentration of poverty in both the inner city and the aging suburbs adjacent to the city. Our lack of regional planning leads to each locality fending for itself. The political terrain becomes hotly contested as jurisdictions compete with each other for the next large-scale commercial development that generates revenue in excess of the cost of providing schools and other essential services. Yet a new town center or fashion park, to use the parlance of modern marketing, may siphon off business from older and smaller retail clusters not far away.

There is no lack of strategies for dealing with runaway growth. Regional land-use planning is a must. Regional growth-sharing would enable all localities to benefit from major commercial growth in a neighboring jurisdiction. We should stress mixed-used development and provide density bonuses to encourage large-scale housing developers to set aside a portion of the new development for low/moderate-income residents. Public transit that serves the entire region is long past due lest the spatial mismatch between job demand and job supply continue, trapping large numbers of unemployed or underemployed people without cars unable to access the new jobs exploding in the outer suburbs.

Unlike drought, which defies human solution, runaway growth can be attacked. A drought is broken only by soaking rains. Breaking human-caused drought requires mustering the political will to chart a different path. Change will occur irrespective of what we do. The question is whether we become victims of change or agents of change. S

John V. Moeser is professor emeritus of urban studies and planning, Virginia Commonwealth University visiting fellow, at the Center for Civic Engagement, University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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