The Silver Line is ushering in more population growth in parts of Northern Virginia. Spring Hill skyline by Malcolm K. licensed under Creative Commons.

Northern Virginia held local elections in May, and population growth was foremost on the mind of many of those running. Some candidates even pondered whether or not there should be a population limit in various parts in the region.

David Meyer, mayor of Fairfax City (a small independent city in the middle of the much-larger Fairfax County), ran unopposed this year like many others on the ballot. Meyer told Antonio Olivo of the Washington Post that too much growth is one of the city's biggest challenges.

“[Fairfax City] has been mostly focused on the potential effects of a handful of building projects around the city. Among them: a $150 million development near the Fairfax Circle intersection that will replace a long-vacant strip mall with new stores, restaurants and about 400 townhouses and apartments.
“There is an understandable concern among the citizens about how many people should be in the city,” said Meyer, who replaced Silverthorne in a 2017 special election. “The real challenge for leadership is the question of balance, finding that right mix.”

Northern Virginia is already a populous place. Fairfax County is the biggest county in Virginia and in the Washington Metropolitan Area, and surrounding counties are no slouches themselves. That population growth is a result of a number of things. Job growth is strong, and NoVa is a popular place for both domestic and international immigrants to settle.

NoVa's growth also comes with challenges. Infrastructure takes time to catch up, and schools have had to find resources to support students who don't speak English as a first language.

Those challenges can feel overwhelming, especially when plans to accomodate future growth are different from older plans that built the neighborhoods we see today. Counties like Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun managed most of their growth by leapfrogging developments and enjoying the quick but fast-diminishing returns of low-density sprawl.

Some people want population caps in NoVa

Most population caps remain implicit, like when Meyer questioned how many people should be in the city or when Vienna Mayor Laurie DiRocco told the Post that her town “really wants to keep that small-town feel.”

Other caps are more real, and come from zoning restrictions that limit the number of new homes. Those decisions may keep population numbers somewhat stable, but they create changes in other ways. By itself, that cap may not seem like a bad thing, but they have profound consequences for other people in the area.

A child plays in the fountain at Lake Anne Plaza in Reston by Daniel Kelly used with permission.

One of the nation's largest job centers has developed a few minutes up the road in Tyson's Corner. People who work in Tyson's may want to live near their place of employment, but when nearby towns like Vienna restrict the number of homes, that affects all of Fairfax County and beyond. Those people need to live somewhere, so they'll just move to the next town over.

There are economic consequences to these towns that are unwelcoming of new residents. These towns are part of Fairfax County, and the borders are relatively fluid. Regardless of the town they live in, residents are mostly using county-specific services like schools, not local ones. Rather than reducing some kind of burden, people who are discouraged from settling in a given town are probably less likely to support or be loyal to local businesses there.

Other places in NoVa want explicit population caps too. Groups in Reston have recently organized to stop zoning changes that are a part of its master plan which was updated according to arrival of the Silver Line. That cap would allow some future growth, but would also be a clear signal that one day, Reston will run out of room.

What would a population cap even look like?

The idea of a hard cap on population is appealing because it can reassure a person that there is an end state to development and the changes it brings to a community. However, the impracticalities of a population cap become apparent pretty quickly.

The biggest hurdle is that you can't really control how many babies are born. While there is a lot of speculation about exactly how many millenials will become parents, many young families will indeed have children. It would not take much for a baby boom to occur in an area simply because there are a lot of millenials living in it.

Biking and jogging on the W&OD Trail in Vienna by Daniel Kelly used with permission.

That's why most planning departments don't really plan for a specific number of residents. Instead, they count the number of new homes (or “dwelling units”) slated to be built and extrapolate from there. It's a good way to measure growth without having to worry about whether or not a baby boom will lead to hitting or exceeding a planned population cap.

Of course, capping a population in one area does not mean people won't just make any changes in others. In other words, if you can't live one place, then you will live somewhere else. In Northern Virginia, that usually means more people will live further out and driving in to their job. This in turn adds to congestion, rather than congestion staying at current levels or dropping.

Growth is something to be accepted and planned for

This doesn't mean that growth should be a free-for-all. In some ways, the problems Northern Virginia faces today are a result of not enough planning for the future. But it also means we need to be very clear about what we ask for when we ask to change the plans we have.

Some of those conversations about how to manage growth are happening in the region right now. Reston continues to discuss how to grow, and such conversations can — and must — happen in areas like Fairfax City and Vienna where leaders ran unopposed on anti-growth platforms.

If we don't like traffic but ask for plans that widen roads at the expense of new transit options or safer ways to walk and bike, then we will end up with even more traffic. In the same way, asking that development just stop as a means of preventing people from moving somewhere ignores the things that motivate people as individuals.

People want jobs and families, and that is unlikely to change even if we manage to keep the number of buildings static.