Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chris Leinberger, Wendell Cox, Drunks and Lampposts

In a New Republic piece, Chris Leinberger says that Wendell Cox's statement that the census shows that central cities have had a small fraction of urban population growth is beside the point.  He argues, correctly, that the census definitions of urban and suburban are pretty arbitrary: if one is in the City of Los Angeles, she lives in an urban area, if she is in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or Pasadena, she is in a suburban area.  One visit to LA reveals that this is silly.  Just because the light is there doesn't mean the missing keys are there.

But Leinberger then makes a statement that is also un-illuminating:

Likewise, the suburbs of those core cities include classic subdivisions and McMansions, like the home of Tony Soprano, but they also include booming places like Old Town Pasadena, Reston Town Center near Dulles Airport outside D.C., and revitalized Jersey City and Hoboken, NJ, on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan.
I now live in Pasadena, and before that, I lived in Bethesda.  They are both indeed wonderful places (for me anyway); they are also quite "walkable."  But neither strikes me as booming, so I looked up their population growth between 2000 and 2010.  The Bethesda Central Designated Place grew by  a little over 9 percent; Pasadena grew by 2.3 percent.  The country as a whole grew by a little less than 10 percent.  It is hard to make a case for booming.

But perhaps the issue is supply.  If no houses are available, then it is not surprising that population has not grown much.  Ryan Avent has correctly made this point.  But the residential vacancy rates in both Bethesda and Pasadena are in excess of 7 percent--not huge, but not exactly tight either.  And Pasadena's condominium market continues to face serious problems.

Personally, I love the kind a communities Leinberger favors--I seem to live in them.  But  some urbanists engage in hectoring that really bothers me.  Lots and lots of Americans appear to love their cars and their isolated houses.   So long as they interanalize the costs their lifestyle imposes (and I have long been for a tax that puts a floor on gasoline costs), people should be able to live how they like and where they like.


Josh Sher said...

I am not sure that the definition of "booming" in the quote was high population growth or high population density. More likely its useage. Something along the lines of the average number of people there over the course of the day. So you can say a bar is booming, or a neighborhood of restuarants is booming even if no one lives there...

Peter Gordon said...

Wendell does get this and makes some adjustments. His website includes 1950-2000 population data that uses the Census' more useful urbanized areas (UZAs) as well as some central city adjustments.

demographia said...

The arbitrariness of the municipal boundaries that drive much of the historical core city and suburb analysis does indeed create significant problems. We commented on this in PERSPECTIVES ON URBAN CORES AND SUBURBS (

We concluded: "An eventual more precise analysis of urban cores and suburban trends will be welcome. Yet, as our analysis of trends in New Jersey indicated, even the growth in more urban core oriented municipalities was minuscule compared to the state's suburban growth. Further, much of the urban core growth in the nation came from areas that, although formally located within “city limits” actually were on the suburban fringe. This was true, for example, in Kansas City, Oklahoma City and even Portland. This suggests that the small share of growth reported in urban cores would be even less if it were based on census tract data; and suburbanization, as a way of life, may indeed be even more prevalent than this year’s numbers suggest."

Best regards,
Wendell Cox