Monday, February 28, 2011

Joel Kotkin cannot find evidence of a "Back to the City" movement

He puts together a table of suburban and core urban growth based on 2000 and 2010 census data.

MSA                   Core Growth                         Suburban Growth                             Total Growth

Austin 20.4%                                       56.1%                                              37.3%
Baltimore -4.6% 9.9% 6.2%
Chicago -6.9% 9.0% 3.9%
Dallas-Fort Worth 0.8% 30.2% 23.4%
Houston 7.5% 39.3% 26.1%
Indianapolis 5.0% 28.3% 15.2%
San Antonio 16.0% 43.7% 25.2%
Washington 5.2% 16.8% 15.4%
Total 3.2% 21.7% 15.7%

These are places for which the Census had released data by mid-February. Some of the places for which data has been released since then--St. Louis, Las Vegas and Birmingham--have the same pattern: in all cases suburban growth has outpaced central city growth. St. Louis' population has dropped to its lowest level since 1870.

The results seem particularly surprising for Chicago and Washington, which have had successful redevelopment in their urban cores. But redevelopment can actually reduce density. Gentrification often means that wealthy households rehabilitate mult-family properties into single family homes. This can lead to an increase in wealth in cities, but does not necessary translate into a relative increase in population.

I have long rooted for cities (although I confess that I myself live in an "urban" suburb). But facts are facts, and the facts from the 2010 census at this point do not support the idea of a reversal from suburbanization to urbanization.


Robert Boyd said...

Isn't this chart possibly misleading because it is speaking in terms of percentages? I mean, core growth and suburban growth each start from their own baselines, but those are two different numbers. If the core base population is greater than the suburban base population, it may have greater absolute growth but a smaller percentage increase.

But in any case, those numbers strike me as somewhat meaningless in other ways. There are two ways core growth can happen, One is if there were lots of unoccupied homes and apartments that become occupied (which is an unlikely but not impossible scenario), or else there is a lot of infill development going on (converting non-housing into housing, converting existing housing into denser housing, etc.). This latter scenario is what is happening in Houston, where I live. But it seems to me that on average infill development is difficult and expensive compared to suburban development. I think this makes the cost of moving back into the city higher than the cost of moving into the suburbs.

So to me, the question is not the absolute population growth or the percentage population growth of the urban core versus the suburbs, but rather the amount of growth relative to the cost of moving into the respective areas.

Unknown said...

I'm skeptical that city vs. suburb data is at a fine enough level of detail to support or refute "back to the city" claims. In most US metropolitan regions transportation (mostly transit) and land use investments will have redistributive effects within the metro areas more than generative effects for the entire metro area. Very few, if any, people will move to the Chicago region for a new "city" lifestyle. But people who already are in the Chicago region may switch locations within the metro. This will result in very localized areas with net gains (whether those gains are households, wealth or people is not yet known, as you point out) and those localized gains are not likely large enough to offset overall losses. The two cities that lost population, Chicago and Baltimore (and you can include St Louis in this), are located in relatively slow growing metros.

All in all I don't think we can say that the "back to the city" movement has failed, at least not yet. I suspect it worked just fine in some neighborhoods while many other neighborhoods continue to decline, and with better data we can figure out these effects.

I do think your point about gentrification is one that is not taken seriously enough by urbanists. Smart growth, TOD and whatnot are not likely to have the same household characteristics as the city or suburb as a whole. We all have to be careful about what metrics we use to value success. Promoting high wealth/small households/few children development has implications for local finance, development and equity.

Don Coffin said...

I'm not at all sure that the city-suburb distinction is a meaningful distinction. I live (partly) in Indianapolis, but in a part of Indianapolis that would have been considered a part of the subrubs before the consolidation of the central city and the rest of Marion County in 1970.

St. Louis is a central city that has been, for more than 100 years, surrounded by "suburbs" that it has not (cannot?) annex. In chicago, Evanston (and cicero and Berwyn and...) get counted as "suburbs," although the distinction is one you could not actually recognize by driving (or walking) around. Much the same can be said for the Boaton, or Philadephia, or Houston, or Dallas areas.

The definitoon of "urban" and "suburban" based on political jurisdiction boundaries leads, I think, to some very misleading conclusions.

Unknown said...

I agree with doc. I don't think these words "city" and "suburb" mean what they used to mean. In particular, I think "suburb" covers an enormous range of very different things, cul-de-sac bedroom communities to true "urban" style pedestrian-friendly "cities" that nonetheless are classified as "suburbs."

Maybe we need a good typology or classification scheme for all the different kinds of suburbs. (Or maybe we even have that and I just don't know it...)

Anonymous said...

I always felt the entire back to the city argument was always a non-falsifiable claim and again we are seeing this to be the case in the threads following this post. Now that data has been provided to show that the back to the city movement isn't true. The true believers now dismiss the data.

Unknown said...

The preference to move back to the city, versus the ability to actually move back to the city are two different things. If a lot of people want to do something which has been made quite difficult by policy, that is a problem with existing policy, not a revelation of preference. In an urban market with constraints on building more similar to the constraints placed on suburban development, you would see more people able to satisfy their preferences for urban living, to whatever extent they exist. These numbers don't really prove anything very emphatically.

Wendy said...

If you look at home prices, the story changes.

From Gordon Price's blog:

He posts a snipit from the Economist that explains why you need to consider the rising prices in core areas, and not just population changes.

When demand exceeds supply, prices rise. This forces many into the suburbs, not by choice but by default.

Rich K said...

I would be very interested to know the demographic changes, not just the population changes. Property values are an approximate proxy for incomes and education, but would not tell the whole story. Both Chicago and DC have seen tremendous growth in property values per square mile since 2000, likely much greater than most suburbs, especially fringe suburbs. Much of Chicago's population loss occurred in outlying neighborhoods like Austin, Hegewisch, and South Chicago that lost major employers like Brachs candy and US Steel, and others that have matured and have few children now. Another example is North Lawndale which has only a fraction of its 1970 population due to the loss of the Sears HQ and the gradual destruction of housing stock since. The loss of affordable housing when older apartment buildings have gone condo is also a factor in population reduction in neighborhoods like Bucktown and Lincoln Park; all the while median household income in those census blocks is far higher than 20 years ago, and amongst the highest in the Chicago metro area. So, I think the story for largely built-out cities like Chicago and DC is not only one of population numbers but who is deciding to live where, in which census tracts, and what effects do they have on local income, property values, and employment growth. Naperville, IL and Herndon, VA might be enjoying fabulous population growth, but is it really comparable to the type of job-engine type growth occurring in Bucktown, the South Loop, and Lincoln Square (Chicago) or Logan Circle, Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor (DC)?

Ali Hangan said...

People do not get the point. Urban or suburban is neither here or there, young people are looking for living space where they can walk, bike or take public transportation to work, public spaces and cultural events. This is the general trend that is taking place. The days of getting a home in a sleepy little street and filling it with products made in China bought from Wal-Mart and having 2.5 kids running around is over, no one wants to live like that anymore. The movies American Beuty and Revolutionary Road captures that dead end life sytle and young 20 and 30 somethings do not want any part of it. The future is in the Urban core and policy makers and Kotkin need to wake up to that reality.