Obviously there is no guarantee than any of the speculations below will come true. Still, one application of your understanding of Virginia geography is to predict the future. If you are presenting a business plan to a venture capitalist or banker, or talking to a neighborhood group about to lose its local playing field to a road realignment, or just a voter interested in what candidate to support, it makes sense to project from the present into the future before making your decision. Your understanding of regional history, economic geography, transportation patterns, population trends, etc. can be used in making real-world decisions long after you've taken your last geography test in school...

Can Northern Virginia Growth Continue Forever?

Under one scenario, growth in Fairfax, Prince William, and other counties will lead ultimately to a full build-out of undeveloped parcels in about 30 years. Growth may not be steady every year - property values could even drop briefly if supply exceeds demand, as occurred in Fall 2006. However, so long as people keep moving to NOVA, then new dwelling units (single family residences, condos, apartrments) will get built.

At build-out, the road pattern will be in place (for better or worse) and construction of large residential subdivisions would end. Construction would continue to be a significant part of the local economy, as old facilities are replaced with new buildings and transportation systems, but projects would deal with smaller parcels and upgrading of existing systems. (Planners actually resist the concept of build-out. Instead, they assume that there will be a constant construction program as people replace or enhance existing buildings.)

Look at the real estate business in cities like Richmond and Baltimore and Washington, DC today - it is a model for the Northern Virginia of the future. Note how urbanized areas like the District are still investing in school facilities, but brand-new school construction projects are rare. Instead, existing school sites are being revamped to upgrade the technology in the schools or to reflect the changing populations in different neighborhoods.

Assuming a steady trend line, with no world wars or unanticipated shifts in the American economy, Northern Virginia's "dot.com" economy should continue to expand. In another 20 years, if you believe in steady trends, the Internet service sector should grow to dominate the region the way government employment and real estate development dominated Northern Virginia's economic and political life from World War I until the end of the Cold War.

If you are a 30-year old civic activist today, with skills for blocking new highways such as the Western Transportation Corridor or the talent for getting school sites proffered as part of the approval of new subdivisions, you will adjust to a new political situation requiring different expertise by the time you are 50 years old. After the region builds out, land use and conservation issues will revolve around redevelopment more than new development - comparable to issues in Arlington County now.

Elected and appointed officials in the area will be able to facilitate such development, with some of the same techniques used to encourage shopping mall developers and computer chip manufacturers and concert promoters. Assembling parcels of land, identifying available space for rent, rebating permit fees, fast-tracking building requests, closing or building roads to change traffic patterns, establishing new bus or rail commuter arrangements, etc. will be useful tools for Northern Virginia officials, long after the number of undeveloped parcels approaches zero.

But other tools will play a greater role, especially arrangements to shape school curricula to meet requirements of employers. Look for the key to the Northern Virginia economy to be in the products of the local school systems, with particular emphasis on the graduates from community colleges and universities in the area. As the economy of Northern Virginia shifts away from government operations, the style of the educational system should become increasingly entrepreneurial rather than bureaucratic.

Of course, there's always another scenario. There is no requirement for ever-increasing growth at the edge of the urban center matched by decline at the urban core.

True, the District of Columbia has lost 200,000 people since the 1960's. After overt housing discrimination and "redlining" practices limiting mortgage lending were stopped by Federal law, and especially after the 1968 riots in the District, many middle-class residents moved to Prince Georges County and other Maryland suburbs. The District developed a reputation for having terrible schools, a high crime and high tax rate, crooked politicians, a business-hostile bureaucracy , and an incredibly ineffective local government overall. People voted with their feet for 30 years. As they took their families and businesses across the District Line, they spurred an economic and population boom in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and Maryland. At the same time, the population of Northern Virginia diversified dramatically as refugees resettled in Arlington after fleeing international conflicts, especially in Southeast Asia and Central America.

True, the Federal, state and local governments built a transportation network to move commuters from the suburbs to jobs in the District. I-66, the Shirley Highway, and the Metro all led from the outer core to the inner city... allowing suburban workers to take their paychecks home with relative ease at 5:00pm each night, and blocking the District from imposing a commuter tax.

True, Virginia laws allowed real estate developers to build cheap housing, without allowing for "impact fees" to mitigate the social costs being imposed on the counties and cities. Northern Virginia communities with pro-growth attitudes passed bond issues for rapid development of schools, libraries, roads, parks, and other facilities to handle the influx, reducing the costs in the short run as repayment bills were spread out to include future generations.

True, the real estate bust of 1989 blocked the anticipated growth of Gainesville into the next "edge city." After a short burst of developer enthusiasm for the ultimately-canceled Disney America theme park, it took until the turn of the century for residential and retail projects to develop at the intersection of I-66 and US Route 29.

Is it just a matter of time, waiting out the market downturns, before:

Right? It's a safe bet that farms in Stafford and Spotsylvania and Loudoun and Frederick counties will rise in value, as their potential rises for conversion to housing developments, right? There really is only one way Northern Virginia can develop, following the trends of the last 50 years for another 50 years - right???

What if the pattern of the last 30 years is changed? What if the District becomes an attractive place to live again?

There's room for 200,000 more people there. If the crime rate of the District were reduced dramatically, and the local government responded to citizen concerns while the Federal government financed major redevelopment initiatives in Southwest DC (such as moving the Supreme Court to the southern end of Capitol Street), then demand for housing in the District might grow. If developers responded with low-cost apartments and duplexes and condos and single-family homes, replacing dilapidated housing stock with energy efficient "smart homes" wired for fast telecommunications, then new urban villages could emerge in the District.

Over time, perhaps by 2020, attitudes about the District could shift dramatically. And if population growth were concentrated into the core of the existing urbanized area, then:

What other expectations that are now "conventional wisdom" are subject to revision? How would you expect to be able to make money on your insights, if you were willing to risk some investment dollars for the long-term (20 years)?

Investors, especially real estate investors, are geographers who are predicting the future based on experiences from the past, an understanding of current conditions, and speculation of anticipated changes. The elected and appointed officials who deal with changing demands for public services, especially projected school populations, are regional geographers. And the citizens who choose these officials, or invest their retirement funds into different sectors of the economy, have a major responsibility for shaping the future of the region. Do you fall into one of these categories?

What Comes After Sprawl?
Evolution of Northern Virginia
Virginia Places