Thursday, April 14, 2011

Centerpiece: Are Americans Rediscovering the City?

In recent years, urban theorists have debated whether the American city is entering a period of rebirth after decades of suburbanization.  On the surface, this would seem to be an easy question to answer, right?  After all, demographers have a wide variety of migration data to analyze, and the question seems straightforward enough: Are people choosing city living over the suburbs in greater numbers, or aren’t they?  Unfortunately, both sides can find support in the numbers.

The case against the “return to the city” movement is simple enough to make using the most recent information available: Based on an analysis of 2010 Census data for eight metropolitan areas with populations over one-million, fully 96 percent of growth in the last decade occurred in the suburbs.  The growth rate in these suburbs was seven times higher than the growth rate in their urban cores, and the suburbs added 14 times as many people.

There are, however, more subtle hints that residential preferences – and migration patterns – may be changing.
Cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, DC, that had become accustomed to shrinking over the last few decades have seen their populations grow, if only slightly.  And if one looks at trends within the last decade, it appears as if suburban growth slowed in 2008-09 compared with 2004-05, while population growth in the largest cities accelerated.  Considering the built-out nature of most urban areas, one wouldn’t expect significant levels of population growth anyway, so any uptick is noteworthy.

There is also a hybrid theory worth investigating: People are becoming more likely to want an urban lifestyle, whether it’s within a big city or not.  Some market research suggests that there is growing demand for “town centers” or “traditional neighborhoods” that have some of the same amenities as more urban places – walkability, proximity to shopping, access to public transit – but that are located outside of city centers in what we typically consider suburbs, albeit denser ones.

In the short-term, whether households prefer the suburbs, the big city or somewhere in between is moot.  Weak employment growth and, for homeowners, a significant loss of equity in the last five years have resulted in the lowest mobility rates since tracking began in 1947.  No one is moving anywhere right now.  (In fact, one study attributes recent urban gains at the expense of the suburbs to this lack of mobility, since people were not economically able to relocate to the suburbs in recent years.)

In the long-term, however, there are a variety of trends that suggest that regardless of historical migration patterns, demand for living in higher density areas will increase in the future.  The rising price of oil, smaller households, and the growth in the number of older adults with a need for transportation services all point to rising demand for smaller homes in denser, transit-oriented communities. 

If demand for these types of communities outpaces supply, already-high prices in city centers will increase – both in real terms and in relation to the suburbs – and only households with ample financial resources will be able to satisfy their housing preferences.  Communities that plan urban infill developments or suburban town centers should ensure that a share of the units are affordable and available to low- and moderate-income households.  Without such policies, tomorrow’s new communities will be as socioeconomically exclusive and segregated as the suburbs of a generation ago.

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