Earlier this month, statewide population projections from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service brought great promise. Richmond and some of its largest suburban areas — including Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties — are all poised to grow over the next two decades.

With the notion of “growth,” we expect positives — more places to live, work and play; more economic opportunities that bring results for Virginians. To achieve that goal, raw numbers of people alone are not a crystal ball.

“We don’t drill down into the model,” noted Shonel Sen, the research and policy analyst who developed the Weldon Cooper Center’s estimates. “We don’t see what’s happening at every locality.”

To the average resident in our area, that matters. What’s happening on my street? How will my commute change? Will my job still be here in 2040? Does a bigger Richmond region mean better for me?

Those questions sparked a search for some other metrics. As demographers wait for the new 2020 Census, which Sen said will provide even stronger projections, “perceived job density” is one place to start. The measure comes from a June report by the Brookings Institution’s Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking.

Researchers assessed how concentrated employment opportunities have been in our region, in the form of average jobs per square mile. It’s a deeper sense of place — a snapshot of the number of jobs around a typical job.

“You have to get under the hood a little bit,” said Jennifer Vey, director of Brookings’ Bass Center and a lead researcher for the report.

Using U.S. Census data available from 2004 to 2015, Brookings analyzed 94 of the country’s largest metro areas. Richmond was one of 34 places to post at least a 10% gain, joining bigger cities like New York, along with smaller, more comparable locations like Greenville, S.C.

At the local level, work patterns by community and industry varied. Through data provided by Joanne Kim, a senior research assistant for Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, the city of Richmond (our densest core area) saw a 39% increase. Vey said this observation fits in with a larger urban narrative in metro regions. It’s “propelled by the growing desire of educated workers for transit access, walkability, and dense constellations of services and amenities,” the report’s introduction said.

Outside of the city, two exurban areas — Goochland County (up 245%) and King William County (up 422%) — also grew denser. But Vey said those numbers were a product of job growth disproportionately taking place in already concentrated communities.

In Chesterfield County, perceived job density decreased by 17%. UVa’s analysis predicts the area will grow 22.5% by 2040 — the sharpest regional jump. But will it be a place characterized by suburban sprawl — a spatial mismatch among jobs, workers and services? Vey’s analogy was employment can’t be “spread out like peanut butter.”

For companies and workers, there are demonstrated economic benefits to living in an area with high job density. Brookings notes proximity among firms allows for more trade and innovation, as well as a greater variety of suppliers. Employees draw upon a more extensive set of job opportunities and mixed-use services, more outlets for participation in civic groups and more paths to use local infrastructure, such as roads or public transportation.

Competitive, diverse markets are what we strive for in and around Richmond. From 2004 to 2015, some employment sectors saw denser growth than others. Arts/entertainment (up 96%), health care (up 61%) and education (up 51%) topped the list for the entire metropolitan area, according to Census data.

But going forward, industries might undergo revival or face disruption. For example, Sen said an aging Virginia, driven by retiring baby boomers, might spell higher demand for services like health care and senior-friendly housing. Could construction jobs also rise as a result?

In a city versus suburbs context, how much disruption will brick-and-mortar retail continue to face? Will more residents, regardless of age, choose remote work opportunities over jobs with dedicated addresses? Will headquarters decline because of less interest in suburban car commutes?

“Understanding where your jobs are and how they’re changing is really important to your economic development strategy,” Vey said.

None of the above questions can be answered with a crystal ball. But as the region keeps ballooning, local leaders and organizations are already thinking beyond population. They’re seeking to reach the people within those figures to create a bigger, better Richmond.

Chris Gentilviso

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