The Nine Regions of Virginia

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time - you can't swallow a whole elephant at once.

Similarly, it is easier to examine Virginia in small chunks as well. But how should someone split - or lump - the pieces together? Does "Southwest Virginia" start at Roanoke, or Bristol? Do the suburbs of Richmond include Goochland? Is Fredericksburg in Northern Virginia?

Dr. Jim Fonseca, when he was a geography professor and taught the "Geography of Virginia" class at George Mason University, selected nine regions that seemed to "fit together." After years of studying Virginia, he defined the regions in an article published in the Virginia Geographer (Fall-Winter, 1990 issue):

The human geography of contemporary Virginia is the product of complex interaction between the state's physical environment and its human population. The diverse physiographic regions of the state--the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachian Plateau--are important influences, but they are not the only factors explaining regional population distribution and economic activity in the Commonwealth.

One of the more critical factors influencing Virginia's geography is the location of the state in reference to larger multistate regions, such as Megalopolis, Appalachia, and the Piedmont Manufacturing Belt. The boundaries of these regions are seldom sharply demarcated, either on the national or the Virginia landscape. However, a useful approximation of their spatial extent in Virginia can be obtained by analyzing the state's physical geography in terms of social and economic data for nine contemporary regions that are based on the boundaries of the state's twenty-one planning districts.

This analysis will begin in Northern Virginia, proceed clockwise around the periphery of the state, and conclude with an examination of the Richmond Region in the heart of the state.


Northern Virginia is an integral part of Megalopolis, a region first analyzed by internationally known geographer Jean Gottman. Megalopolis reaches from the New Hampshire suburbs of Boston to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Northern Virginia shares in the relative wealth and dense population of this economically complex, urbanized region, but it is less oriented to manufacturing than is Megalopolis as a whole. Instead, Northern Virginia is more oriented both to government employment and to indirect, government-related employment with concerns such as consulting firms, legal offices, public interest groups, trade associations, and firms specializing in government contracts.

Although the cutbacks in federal spending can be expected to have an adverse impact upon the region's economy, other recent developments such as the relocation of regional and national headquarters of large corporations may counter this effect. Mobil Oil, American Telephone and Telegraph, and Time-Life are examples of corporate offices that have relocated to Northern Virginia in recent years.

Northern Virginia's population will continue to grow, although most likely not so rapidly as during the 1980-1988 period. During that interval, the region grew by 23 percent, to more than 1.4 million people. Recently, however, growth in the entire Washington metropolitan area has slowed, although Northern Virginia continues to grow much faster than the area as a whole.

The landscape of Northern Virginia is increasingly an urban rather than a suburban landscape. Arlington and Alexandria have characteristics of many of the nation's central cities, including substantial black population, diverse ethnic communities, urban deterioration, and slow population growth. (A gain of almost 11,000 between 1980 and 1988 has not yet replaced the loss of more than 31,000 people between 1970 and 1980.)

The continuing construction of the Metro subway system and the development of a highrise skyline in downtown Arlington (Rosslyn) add to the urban appearance. About five miles from the Potomac River, this urban landscape grades into a zone of dense suburbanization (e.g., condominiums, office parks, and townhouse clusters) that extends to I-495, the Capital Beltway. Beyond the beltway, a suburban landscape of single family homes predominates until the rural fringe of western Loudoun and Prince William counties is reached.


Despite its proximity to Northern Virginia, the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Fringe of Megalopolis - Northern Neck, the Middle Peninsula, and the Eastern Shore - is a very different area. The Chesapeake Fringe has preserved enough of its natural environment to be able to take advantage of the "Four Fs" of farming, fishing, forestry, and fun (tourism, water recreation, and vacation homes).

The importance of these activities can be seen, for example, in Accomack's rank as the third largest county in the state in agricultural production, as measured in terms of sales value; in Northern Neck's role as a vacation and retirement home area; in the numerous coastal towns dependent upon fishing an oystering; and in the rather high dependence of Northern Neck and the Middle Peninsula upon the forestry products industry.

The Chesapeake Fringe thus is still tied economically to its physical geographic qualities, including its scenic beauty. Encroachment upon the region by the three large, close urban concentrations of Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Northern Virginia appears inevitable.

The Chesapeake Fringe gained approximately 17,500 people between 1980 and 1988, giving it a population growth rate of 12 percent. Also during these years, the Middle Peninsula (Planning District No. 18), had the second highest net in-migration rate among the state's twenty-two planning districts.


Hampton Roads, consisting of the Census Bureau's Metropolitan Statistical Area of Norfolk - Virginia Beach - Newport News, is a sprawling, polycentric urban area of almost 1.4 million people, worthy of being called the "Los Angeles of Virginia." The variety of names by which this area is known (Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Tidewater) makes it easy to lose sight of the impressive size of this urban agglomeration.

This combined metropolitan region is, with the exception of Atlanta, the largest urban concentration in a vast area of the southern United States whose boundary to the north extends to Washington, D.C., to the south to New Orleans and to the west to St. Louis.

Hampton Roads' economic base is port-related, including shipbuilding, ship repair, naval installations, cargo transfer and storage, and manufacturing related to the processing of imports and exports. Associated with the ports' military role are almost 50,000 federal civilian employees.

The tourist industry of Virginia Beach and the Williamsburg area and the agricultural activity of Suffolk and Southampton counties add variety to the region's economy. Meat processing (especially pork products), soybeans, and peanuts are among this area's specialities.

Tidewater's economic future is bright for many reasons, although decreased defense spending, particularly for shipbuilding, will slow growth in the region. Hampton Road's hinterland for all types of cargo is a bustling Sunbelt region that extends well west of the Appalachians into the Tennessee Valley, and well beyond the Coastal Plain into the Piedmont of the Southern Atlantic coast.

Hampton Roads also stands to benefit from its own momentum. The increasing concentration of population and manufacturing within the Tidewater region itself makes the port both a producer and consumer of more and more of its low bulk, high value general cargo. This type of cargo generates much more employment growth in Tidewater than does coal, which is the principal export of the Hampton Roads area. The coal exports, while not an exceptional generator of employment, also have increased tremendously over recent years.


Southside, which includes planning districts 13, 14, and 19, is Virginia's poorest region. It is located mainly on the Piedmont and partly on the Coastal Plain of south central Virginia. Southside forms part of a larger region that includes much of adjacent north central North Carolina. This area, which has a large black population, is just outside the reach of the economic spillover effects from Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Lynchburg.

Low incomes, low educational attainment, high unemployment, and general lack of economic opportunity make this area one of exceptionally slow population growth (less than 1 percent). In income levels, of the poorest 15 of the state's 36 cities and counties measured by adjusted gross income on tax returns, 10 were located in Southside.

An important factor in the economic base of most of this region is general agriculture, with tobacco a particularly important product in the western half of the region. Southside's agriculture is characterized by a high rate of tenant farming, a large proportion of part-time farmers, a large number of farms operated by blacks, and relatively low capital investment in farm machinery and buildings.

Manufacturing is also important to the economy, but it is not well distributed throughout the region. Most manufacturing is concentrated in Halifax and Mecklenburg counties, adjacent to the Piedmont-Valley Industrial Zone, and in the cities of Petersburg and Hopewell, adjacent to the Richmond Region. Manufacturing is primarily of a low wage type, such as textiles, apparel, and forest products. Three Southside counties are included among the six Virginia counties that produce the most hardwood timber, and three Southside counties are among the six highest in softwood timber production as well.

Petersburg and Hopewell are exceptions to the manufacturing pattern in Southside. The specialties of these cities are cigarette and chemical production, both of which pay higher wages than other Southside industries. Petersburg and Hopewell could, in fact be considered part of the Richmond Region, in which case the importance of agriculture and forestry to southside would be much more striking. Thus, in a fashion similar to the Chesapeake Fringe, the physical environment and its primary products, overall, greatly influence the economic character of Southside.


Virginia's southwestern Piedmont area is the northernmost extension of the Piedmont Manufacturing Belt. This industrial zone, a dynamic belt of small- and medium-sized manufacturing cities, sprawls across the Piedmont from northern Georgia to Lynchburg. Although the western edge of this industrial zone in the rest of the South corresponds closely with the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Virginia's case the river gaps cut in the Blue Ridge by the James and Roanoke rivers have helped to shape the state's transportation corridors and have allowed the industrial development of the Piedmont to spill west beyond the Blue Ridge.

Therefore, it is appropriate to add Roanoke and several adjacent cities in the Southern Valley to the zone. The whole Virginia region, appropriately called the Southern Piedmont-Valley Industrial Zone, includes planning districts 4, 5, 11, 12. The region is home to almost 850,000 people, 14 percent of the state's 1988 (provisional) population.

A wide variety of products are manufactured in the cities and counties of this region, but most employment derives from the manufacture of textiles, apparel, shoes, and furniture. Chemicals, primary and fabricated metals, electrical machinery, and food processing are secondary specializations. In total, this region employs more than 112,000 manufacturing workers, about 29 percent of the state's labor force in manufacturing.

Lynchburg and Roanoke are the two largest metropolitan areas in the region. While metropolitan Lynchburg's specialties are electrical machinery and primary and fabricated metals, all manufacturing categories important to the zone are located in the Lynchburg MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area). Roanoke, by comparison, is a more diversified city.

Despite a larger population--223,700 in the Roanoke MSA and 145,700 in the Lynchburg MSA--the Roanoke MSA has 3,000 fewer manufacturing employees than Lynchburg. Instead, Roanoke is more specialized in transportation, communications, trade, and services. This partly reflects Roanoke's evolution as a railroad city and the city's geographic situation at the crossroads of two major transportation corridors; the north-south I-81 corridor through the Shenandoah Valley and Route 460 east to Lynchburg and the Richmond Region. Roanoke is in a better position than Lynchburg to capture wholesale and retail trade from all of the Southern Valley and from Southwest Virginia.

To the south of Roanoke and Lynchburg is the Danville-Martinsville complex. These two cities are only thirty miles apart, and together with their surrounding counties of Henry and Pittsylvania, they are home to 185,000 people--39,000 more people than in metropolitan Lynchburg.

Approximately 38,700 manufacturing employees work in these four cities and counties--a remarkable figure in comparison to population size. Thus, the urban-industrial core of Virginia's Southern Piedmont-Valley Industrial Zone is best thought of as centered not simply along the Lynchburg-Roanoke axis, but rather as centered about a triangle whose three points are Danville-Martinsville, Roanoke, and Lynchburg.

In addition to manufacturing, this region also has important agricultural and forestry production. Pittsylvania is one of the six Virginia counties with the largest agricultural production, as measured in terms of value; and the Valley counties of the region produce a variety of livestock products and crops, especially tobacco. Because of the importance of the furniture industry as well as forestry production, the region's Planning District 12 is dependent on the forest products industry for one-third of its base employment, the largest proportion of dependence among all of the state's planning districts.


Southwest Virginia straddles two very different physiographic regions, the Ridge and Valley Province and the Appalachian Plateau. The high, rugged topography of the plateau is most pronounced in the three counties of Wise, Dickenson, and Buchanan. Southwest Virginia is also part of two larger, overlapping regions of national importance, Appalachia and the Tennessee Valley.

Both regions have been designated as areas in need of economic development and have benefited greatly from federal assistance through the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Almost all of Southwest Virginia (generally, planning districts 1, 2, and 3) falls under the jurisdiction of both of these authorities. (The exceptions are Buchanan and Carroll counties, which are not included in the TVA).

The last decade has seen the economy of Southwest Virginia slow down again from a period of better times during the 1970's. Traditionally a poor, predominantly white area characterized by many of the same limited opportunities that have hindered Southside, Southwest Virginia has seen some reduced unemployment, higher educational attainment, and better incomes.

Even with such improved conditions, however, Southwest Virginia is not as well off as the state as a whole, according to various socioeconomic measures. Perhaps the most telling sign is that Southwest Virginia which experienced net immigration from 1970 to 1980, has again seen a population loss of 10,500 people from 1980 to 1988, a decline of 2.5%. The Cumberland Plateau Planning District had the sharpest loss of all such districts over that time period, -5.4%

The renewed demand for coal during the 1970's was part of the reason for the renaissance of Southwest Virginia, just as its decreasing demand slowed growth in the 1980's. But coal production is not widely dispersed throughout the region; it is extremely concentrated within the plateau counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise, which account for about 83 percent of the state's production. In the counties of the southern Appalachian Valley, manufacturing, agriculture, trade, and transportation-related employment add substantially to the economy.

Galax, a Valley city, contributes to the region's urban economy with its specialization in the manufacture of many of the same products as the Piedmont-Valley Industrial Zone, particularly furniture and textiles. Bristol, located on the Virginia-Tennessee border, is a Tennessee Valley city and part of the Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol MSA of 443,000 people, of which 91,000 are in Virginia.

While Bristol also has many workers in the textile, apparel, and furniture industries, it is much more specialized in printing and publishing, fabricated metals, and nonelectrical machinery. This specialization in less traditional industries is perhaps responsible for the Bristol area's very rapid growth as a manufacturing center.

Agriculture is the leading economic activity in Planning district 3, as measured by employment, and is second only to mining in planning district 1 and 2. This is true despite the fact that Southwest Virginia as a whole presents some of Virginia's poorest opportunities for agriculture. Farming in the three plateau counties is particularly limited due to topography. The Southern Valley has a better quality of land but is handicapped by distance from large markets.

As a result of these factors, a specialization has developed in the raising of beef and dairy cattle and sheep. A high percentage of farmland is devoted to pasture, and a high percentage of cropland is devoted to hay production. Many farm operations are of a part-time nature with limited sales.


The Northern Shenandoah Valley is characterized by a nicely balanced, diverse landscape combining natural beauty, agriculture, rural towns, and small cities. The cities and towns have one or more functions based on agricultural supply, manufacturing, college, or resort specializations.

The economic ties of the Northern Valley to its regional continuation northward through West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania are now weak, due to the eastward pull of the Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond markets. Yet the historical ties of the Northern Valley to the larger Appalachian Valley region have indelibly shaped its culture and landscape. The northern portion of the Shenandoah Valley was settled initially by German and Scotch-Irish pioneers who traveled through the Valley southward from Pennsylvania.

The main economic base of the Northern Valley is agriculture, a specialization expressed most fully in Rockingham and Augusta counties. Rockingham County is the leading county in the state in terms of the sales value of agricultural products, more than three times that of Augusta, the second ranked county.

Livestock is the region's agricultural mainstay. Pigs, beef and dairy cattle, sheep, and poultry are raised. Alfalfa and grain for livestock are major crops, and the northern counties of the region, especially Frederick and Clarke, also specialize in apples and apple products. Unlike the Southern Valley portion of Southwest Virginia, farming is largely a full-time operation; and unlike Southside, investment in farm buildings and machinery is high.

Manufacturing, the second most important activity of the region, is present in all of the cities of the Northern Valley; but the largest concentrations of manufacturing employment are found in the cities of Waynesboro and Winchester, and Rockingham County, each of which has more than 5,000 workers. Electrical machinery, apparel, and food processing are the region's manufacturing specialties.

Per capita income is slightly below the state average in the Northern Valley, while population growth has been slightly above average. The three largest cities of the region are Harrisonburg, Staunton, and Winchester; the counties surrounding these cities (Rockingham, Augusta, and Frederick, respectively) experienced the majority of the Northern Valley's population growth between 1980 and 1988.


The Northern Piedmont is a diverse, rapidly growing, nonmetropolitan region concentrated primarily on the Piedmont and partly on the Coastal Plain. It is generally the area encompassed by planning districts 9, 10, and 16.

The economic base of this large region is diverse and defies simple generalization. Employment in construction is important to all three planning districts, due to rapid population growth in the region as well as to long-distance commuting by some construction workers living in the region to jobs in Washington and Richmond. Government is a large employer also. Planning District 16 is second only to the Northern Virginia planning district in the number of workers specializing in public administration; this is largely attributable to residents commuting to Northern Virginia to work.

Another concentration of government workers is located in the Charlottesville metropolitan area. This area has almost 21,200 state employees, many related to the University of Virginia, as well as 1,300 federal workers. Agriculture is a major employer in planning districts 9 and 10. A variety of crops are grown, and livestock--particularly beef and dairy cattle and horses--also contributes to the economy.

Albemarle County-Charlottesville and Spotsylvania County-Fredericksburg are the region's two largest manufacturing concentrations. Interestingly, a disproportionate number of industrial workers in the Northern Piedmont work for foreign-affiliated companies. In particular, in a continuous strip of Piedmont counties beginning with Loudoun (in the Northern Virginia region) and proceeding south through Fauquier, Culpeper, Orange, Louisa, and Fluvanna, ten foreign-affiliated manufacturing plants employ approximately 2,400 workers, or about 39 percent of the manufacturing workers in the six counties.

The Northern Piedmont remarkably accounted for more than 88% of all the nonmetropolitan population growth in the state between 1980 and 1988. Although it should be noted that Stafford County, part of the Washington D.C. MSA since 1983, is still considered part of Planning District 16 by Virginia and in this paper. During that same period growth rates of 28 to 38 percent in Stafford, Spotsylvania and Fauquier Counties constitute a phenomenon more akin to innundation than to growth.

A variety of factors appear to be contributing to this growth. Most of the growth is a spillover from both Northern Virginia and from Richmond. Growth in Albemarle County is tied directly to the growth of the University of Virginia, as well as indirectly to that institution through Charlottesville's attraction of engineering firms, high technology firms, retirees and state and federal agencies.


The Richmond Region straddles the Fall Line, the meeting zone of the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont. It is home to approximately 711,000 Virginians, a gain in population of about 11 percent between 1980 and 1988. (The Richmond MSA, which includes Petersburg, Hopewell and adjacent counties has a population of 842,000.) Approximately 214,500 of the region's residents live in the City of Richmond, a drop of about 4700 people from 1980.

However, this loss of population is substantially less than the drop of 30,000 from 1970 to 1980 and more than made up by migration into the suburban ring. Chesterfield, New Kent, and Hanover counties, in particular, have experienced growth rates of 32 percent, 26 percent, and 17 percent, respectively, over the last eight years.

Richmond is well situated to play an important role among Virginia's regions. It is located approximately equidistant from Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and Lynchburg and is very close to the state's center of gravity of population--which, in 1980 was located thirty miles west of Richmond near the Powhatan-Goochland County border. The city also benefits from an excellent position in reference to the state's transportation network, lying at the junction of I-64 and I-95, two of the most heavily traveled highways in the state, as well as along several major rail lines.

The outlook for the Richmond Region's economic future is a positive one, not because of any single factor but because of the diversity of the region's economy. Richmond's role as the state capital contributes to, but does not dominate, the region's economy, as does government-related employment in Northern Virginia or federal military spending in Hampton Roads. While there are 42,500 state workers in the region, this figure is only 9 percent of the labor force in the MSA. Another 17,700 people work for the federal government. In fact, when the number of state employees as a percentage of population is considered, Richmond is not heavily specialized in government employment. Banking, the manufacture of nondurable goods, transportation, and trade are greater relative specializations.

The Richmond MSA provides employment for a total of approximately 472,000 workers. In order of the number of workers, the major employment categories of the region are services; retail trade; manufacturing; state government; finance, insurance and real estate; local government; construction; wholesale trade; transportation and public utilities and federal government. Within the manufacturing category of some 63,700 employees, the largest category of workers is in the tobacco industry. Other important manufacturing categories are chemicals, printing and publishing, paper, and wood manufactures.

This economic diversity, which is typical of the entire Richmond region, helps to insulate it from hardship due to economic fluctuation in particular sectors of the economy. The region's location also allows it to benefit from growth in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and the Piedmont-Valley regions and, indeed, the state as a whole.


At this discussion of Virginia's geography has shown, each of Virginia's nine contemporary regions has a physical geographical base that offers opportunities for varying combinations of agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining, and recreation. The location of each region, both in relation to the rest of the state and to the larger national regions, also has an important influence on industrial and urban development.

These environmental and locational qualities interact in complex ways to influence the economic base of each Virginia region, providing a wide-ranging diversity in employment and economic activity. Overall, this diversity adds stability to the state's economy and provides the residents of Virginia with a fascinating, heterogeneous landscape.

Author's note: The information and statistics used in the article are drawn from a variety of sources, including publications of the Center for Public Service, University of Virginia; the School of Forestry and Wildlife Resources, Virginia Tech; the U.S. Bureau of the Census; the Virginia Employment Commission, and the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce.

Jean Gottman's texts are Megalopolis (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961 and Virginia in Our Century (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969).

Regions of Virginia
Geography of Virginia