Land Use

Virginia country road

Land Use

Virginia continues to seek a balanced land development strategy, weighing the benefits of economic development with the costs of changing land use.

Why is Land Use Important?

There are both costs and benefits to land development. New developments are a sign of economic growth and prosperity, as they provide housing, increased jobs, and economic revitalization.  On the other hand, new developments can place burdens on existing infrastructures and services, resulting in increased congestion, commute times, and air and noise pollution. Increasingly, development may also be at the expense of farmland and open fields.

How is Virginia Doing?

High-density areas, high-density populations

A high-density area is defined here as one with 1,000 or more residents per square mile. Since 2000, Virginia has seen its high-density areas increase in percentage, in population and in land area. In 2010 (latest data available), 72.2 percent of Virginia's population lived in high-density areas, compared to 68.9 percent in 2000. The population rate in these high-density areas also increased: from 3,811.5 per square mile in 2000 to 3,947.7 in 2010. Finally, the amount of land taken up by high-density areas increased as well: from 3.2 percent to 3.7 percent of the Commonwealth’s total acreage.

Since 2000, the population rate in low-density areas -- those with fewer than 1,000 residents per square mile -- increased slightly from 57.6 to 58.5 people per square mile.

Changes in Population and High-Density Land since 2000,
by Virginia Region (as of 2010)

Region Population Change (2010 Total) % of Population in High-Density Areas
  / Change in % of Population
Population per Square Mile
in High-Density Areas
Change in % of High Density Acreage
Central + 211,560
(1,577,807 people)
66.7%   /   + 2.4% + 22.7
(3,262.2 people)
+ 0.6%
Eastern + 4,201
(141,676 people)
22.9%  /  + 1.3% - 315.1
(2,060.6 people)
+ 0.2%
Hampton Roads + 90,192
(1,656,718 people)
88.9%   + 2.1% + 40.7
(4,370.3 people)
+ 1.0%
Northern + 506,387
(2,623,079 people)
88.9%   /  + 2.5% + 307.3
(4,875.1 people)
+ 3.6%
Southside - 5,947
(380,886 people)
30.7%   /  + 0.2% - 36.5
(2,541.6 people)
Southwest + 3,832
(417,024 people)
28%   /  + 2.5% - 28
(2,254.2 people)
+ 0.1%
Valley + 56,182
(479,535 people)
52.8%   /  + 6.3% + 46.6
(3,254.4 people)
+ 0.3%
West Central + 56,102
(724,299 people)
55.7%   /  + 1.0% + 173.6
(2,996.1 people)
+ 0.1%
Virginia + 922,509
(8,001,024 people)
72.2%   /  + 3.3% + 136.2
(3,947.7 people)
+ 0.5%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Not surprisingly, the largest concentration of population in high-density areas within Virginia are in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, with 88.9 and 88.8 percent (respectively) of the residents in these regions occupying high-density areas. The Eastern and Southwest regions had far fewer people in high-density areas -- 22.9 percent and 28.0 percent, respectively. However, the percentage of residents living in high-density areas did increase for every Virginia region from 2000 to 2010. And population in these areas also increased for all but the Eastern, Southside, and Southwest regions.

Developed land use

Another indicator of how efficiently land is being used examines population rates on land developed for residential, commercial, and industrial uses. Higher rates indicate a more compact and efficient settlement pattern, while lower values indicate a more dispersed one. Nationwide, the pattern since the 1980s has been toward fewer people per developed land acre -- e.g., more suburban development than urban growth.

Population Rates per Developed Acre, by State. See text for explanation.

In 2012 (latest data available), Virginia had 2.6 residents per developed acre, down from 3.0 in 1982. This rate is lower than the national average of 2.8, and ranks the Commonwealth 21st in the country. Virginia’s value is higher than peer states North Carolina (2.0 residents per developed acre) and Tennessee (2.1), but lower than Maryland (3.9). Leading state California had the highest population per developed acre at 6.1.

What is the State's Role?

States and localities work together to forecast what impact proposed land developments may have on area transportation systems and plans. They participate in site reviews and develop regulations (for example, requiring a minimum number of access points to main thoroughfares from a new neighborhood) to better control the impact new developments will have on local traffic and the road system.

Page last modified August 01, 2016

Population per Developed Acre, by State.

State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

Kline, Jeffrey D. 2000. Comparing States with and without Growth Management: Analysis Based on Indicators with Policy Implications Comment. Land Use Policy 17: 349-355.

Coordination of Transportation Planning and Land Use Control: A Challenge for Virginia in the 21st Century, Robert D. Vander Lugt and Salil Virkar, Virginia Transportation Research Council, 1991.

Virginia Transportation Research Council, Options for Improving the Coordination of Transportation and Land Use Planning in Virginia, 2004.

State Data: Population, 1982-2012.
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Regional Economic Information System

Developed Land Area:
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Resources Inventory (NRI)
Note: Developed area consists of land in large urban and built-up areas, small built-up areas, and rural transportation land. Federally owned land is not counted. Statistics from the NRI area are based on data samples and are reported with a margin of error.

Regional Data:  Population, 2000 and 2010
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
A high-density area is defined here as a census block that contains at least 1,000 residents per square mile. A low-density area consists of an area with fewer than 1,000 residents per square mile. Note: These definitions differ slightly from the U.S. Census Bureau definitions for urban and rural areas.

See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.

At a Glance:
Land Use in Virginia

Performance Trend: Trend is maintaining.
State Influence:  

National Ranking:  Virginia ranked 21st for efficient use of developed land (2012). High-density areas have been increasing in percentage and population recently, perhaps reversing a long-standing trend since the 1980s toward more dispersed settlement of developed land.

Virginia by Region:  From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of residents living in high-density areas increased for every region in Virginia.

State Programs & Initiatives

Traffic Impact Studies
In order to better coordinate land use with transportation, all proposed development since July 2007 must now include a traffic impact analysis that is submitted to VDOT. The analysis allows local government officials to make more informed land use decisions.

Development Rights
Since July 2006 a new program allowing the transfer of development rights encourages high-density development and the preservation of undeveloped land.  See Land Preservation for more info.