The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Where City Growth Is Just Like Climate Change

Does anyone else see the parallels I see between debating urbanists and their detractors, and climate change realists and denialists?
Over the last few weeks there’s been some interesting data that’s come out suggesting that core cities are increasing in population faster relative to their surrounding suburbs.  Demographer William Frey noted this by comparing recent American Community Survey estimates from 2010 through 2012, which he reported in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month:
The nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas — those with populations over one million — saw their city populations grow 1.12% between July 2011 and July 2012, up from 1.03% a year earlier and an average of 0.42% between 2000 and 2010, according to an analysis of Census data by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution in Washington. By contrast, these cities’ suburbs grew just 0.97% last year, higher than 2011’s 0.96% but far below the average of 1.38% in the previous decade.

One explanation for this is that this is the residue of the housing market collapse and recession of the last few years, with middle income homeowners stuck in place and few new homebuyers.  However, another explanation is provided by Frey, which makes urbanists salivate and sets off their detractors:
One possibility, Mr. Frey said, is the recent revival of cities is partly due to a “generational phenomenon.” Younger people may have put their lives on hold indefinitely because of the downturn, delaying marriage, kids and home-buying — or even watched older siblings get burned by housing decisions, making them wary of buying in the suburbs. Much of the growth of America’s exurbs, meanwhile, may never return, he said.

Meanwhile, some of the biggest defenders of the suburban status quo have been ramping up their data gathering to suggest that urbanists have the facts all wrong.  Here’s Joel Kotkin, citing research from Wendell Cox:
(A)n analysis of post-2007 population trends by demographer Wendell Cox in the 111 U.S. metro areas with more than 200,000 residents reveals something both very different from the conventional wisdom and at the same time very familiar. Virtually all of the 20 that have added the most residents from 2007 to 2012 are in the Old Confederacy, the Intermountain West and suburbs of larger cities, notably in California. The lone exception to this pattern is No. 15 Portland. The bottom line: growth is still fastest in the Sun Belt, in suburban cities and lower-density, spread out municipalities.

To me the whole argument is similar to those in support of action to combat global climate change, and cite statistics to support their claims, and the denialists who refuse to believe that global climate change is even a factor, and use their own set of data to stake their ground.
Just as in the climate change debate, both are partly right, but one is more right than the other.
Urbanists are correct in their interpretation of the data; people are beginning to reverse the traditional flow of city to suburbs with a new influx of residents to core cities.  Part of this is the residue of the Great Recession, and part of it is a possible generational change in preference.  Suburbanists (is there such a word) are also correct in saying that there’s nothing especially new under the sun, given the more expansive universe of data they’re using (longer time horizon; inclusion of more medium and small metro areas). 
But there’s a middle ground here.  Core cities – and their walkable, dense compatriot suburban areas – are indeed growing in ways they haven’t in decades.  Anecdotally I see evidence that not only is there a return of people to Chicago, but to inner ring suburbs that share many characteristics with Chicago neighborhoods.  And those suburban areas that enjoy excellent transit connectivity with the rest of the Chicago region seem to be doing quite well.
I don’t live in a Sun Belt town, but the data I’ve seen supports the suburbanists’ claims that they, too, are growing.  However, I could interpret that as an aspect of economic recovery after a severe recession rather than an expression of development type preference.
In fact, here’s another thought – any growth in suburban areas now may be the result of lagging inertia, or people settling in on their preference without much forethought about their decision.  To them, conventional wisdom suggests they continue to cast their lot in the suburbs, and they haven’t deviated from that yet. 
We’ll get a better understanding of this as the Millenial generation, those generally born after 1982 or so, move full force into the housing market.  Will they not pursue homeownership to the same extent as their Boomer parents?  Will the cloud of the Great Recession dampen their long-term economic prospects, forcing them to search for a more diverse set of housing choices?  Car ownership and miles driven are declining; will that trend continue and impact decisions?
I suspect we’ll know more sometime in the 2020s.

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