July 01 2013

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen? Planning Challenges Facing American Metropolitan Areas

Urbanists and planners understand how important regional contexts are for achieving sustainable development. America’s major metropolitan regions are a diverse bunch. There are many highly-centralized metropolitan cities such as Boston, Houston, and Chicago, where the core city contains the preponderance of the population, commerce, and cultural icons. There are, however, multipolar regions where several large cities compete for influence, including the Washington, DC, San Francisco Bay, and Hampton Roads of Virginia (HRVA) metropolitan areas. The HRVA region offers several insights into the unique urban planning challenges facing decentralized, multipolar regions striving for sustainable and equitable growth.

HRVA is a region of more than 1.7 million, comprised of nine cities and several outlying counties along the banks of the James River, the Hampton Roads harbor, and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Over more than two centuries, many of the region’s cities gradually annexed and consolidated into a number of independent cities — unique political jurisdictions that function autonomously outside a county. The resulting metropolitan region is largely characterized by very low population densities and increasing sprawl; Chesapeake, for instance, has the second-lowest population density of America’s 100 largest cities, at just 652 persons per square mile (252 per square kilometer). In spite of the already low population density, new housing developments have sprung up in several parts of HRVA (yellow on the map below). Several of HRVA’s core cities, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach, are pressing ahead with transit-oriented developments, expanding Norfolk’s nascent Tide light rail line. This example of inter-city cooperation, however, remains a regional outlier. 

Hampton Roads Residential Construction

Map of the HRVA region showing dates of new housing construction. Brighter yellow indicates post-2000 residential housing start dates. (city-data.com)

In contrast, Newport News and Hampton, the two major cities anchoring the Virginia Peninsula, routinely compete for scarce investments. The result is often repetition of similar developments that draw upon the same population centers. In Newport News, City Center at Oyster Point and Port Warwick are two new urbanist “lifestyle centers” that provide denser, mixed land uses in midtown. In Hampton, the Peninsula Town Center functions similarly, emphasizing higher-end retail and dining. Despite the fierce competition between neighboring cities, population growth in both cities remains stagnant and all three developments face enormous competition from similar projects near Williamsburg, where the highest rates of growth and development (often low-density suburban) take over.

Newport News Detail

City of Newport News (outlined in red) in greater detail. Fort Eustis (northwest), City Center (center of image), and the Williamsburg suburbs (extreme north-central) comprise the majority of new housing since 2000. (city-data.com)

Replication of services, and redundancy in commercial areas and employment centers are particularly dangerous in regions that cannot sustain rapid development through population growth alone, such as in HRVA. How can we remedy this inter-city competition? What innovations have other cities and metropolitan regions developed to address such concerns?

Credits: Maps courtesy of city-data.com, modified by Andrew Carr. All data linked to sources.

Andy Carr

Andy Carr is currently pursuing a M.A. in International and Development Economics at the University of San Francisco in California, focusing on urban and community level development. Originally from Yorktown, Virginia, Andy also holds a B.A. from Christopher Newport University and a M.A. from Penn State, both in Political Science. His aspiration is to work in the nonprofit sector promoting environmentally sustainable and socioeconomically just urban development. With interests as diverse as regional planning integration, transit planning, urban politics, and participatory public space design, Andy will be blogging with an interdisciplinary eye toward place-making in two of America’s greatest metropolitan bay areas: San Francisco and the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.

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This entry was posted on Monday, July 1st, 2013 at 9:44 am and is filed under Community/Economic Development, Government/Politics, Infrastructure, Social/Demographics, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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