Where Americans Will Be in 2050

Where will Americans live? Everywhere. The third article in a three-part series based on Joel Kotkin's new book, "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050," looks at where Americans will live and how our communities will grow to accommodate them.

"The presence of 100 million more Americans by 2050 will reshape the nation's geography. Scores of new communities will have to be built to accommodate them, creating a massive demand for new housing, as well as industrial and commercial space.

This growth will include everything from the widespread "infilling" of once-desolate inner cities to the creation of new suburban and exurban towns to the resettling of the American heartland -- the vast, still sparsely populated regions that constitute the majority of the U.S. landmass."

In an article adapted from his new book, Joel Kotkin looks at predictions for future development - including continued growth of suburbs, a rise in "Cities of Aspiration," and a new boom in the heartland.

Full Story: America in 2050 - Where and How We'll Live



Evidence Please

I was not expecting much from AOL News or a professor located in Orange, Orange County, however I find the author's complete reliance on opinion surveys of where people would "like to live," to determine the future of America's built environment disconcerting in its speculative nature. While any projection fifty years into the future tends to be speculative, failing to take into account economic and environmental factors leads the study to be useless pop news. Although Americans may want to continue to move further and further into the hinterland, what does Mr Kotkin believe will happen to the current suburbs as our infrastructure deficit of overdue repairs and retrofits (now in the trillions of dollars) continues to grow? With this overdue bill, city, county, and state governments are going to either have to raise taxes steadily to match these emerging needs, or make tough choices on where they will concentrate investment and, thus, growth. Another clear economic factor, Kotkin fails to mention in his article (granted I have not read the book), is the continually rising cost of energy. As gasoline reaches 5 or 6 dollars a gallon and an affordable viable alternative has not yet been produced, how likely are people going to be able to afford to move to suburbs, exburbs, and ever further, peripheral rings of development? Additionally, the continued rise of environmentalism is coming at odds with developing the "hinterland" Kotkin supports. As governments respond to this concern and create urban growth boundaries, as Portland, OR, and the SF Bay Area, CA already have, how will this impede this expanse into the periphery? With diminished resources, an aging population, steep bills, and other environmental and economic factors coming our way, how does this author think that predicting the future of the built environment through living preference surveys is being responsible to his academic duties?

The Surveys Don't Prove Kotkin's Point

"Surveys of housing preferences consistently show that if given the choice, most Americans, particularly families, will still opt for a place with a spot of land and a little breathing room."

But that says nothing about whether they would prefer to live in the sort of auto-dependent suburb that Kotkin promotes or in the sort of streetcar suburbs that the New Urbanists are designing - which also have a private yard and breathing room.

And it says nothing about how Americans rank this preference against their other preferences - such as their desire to control global warming and to preserve open space.

Charles Siegel

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Kotkin's Achilles Heel


You're exactly right, and this is a mistake that Kotkin makes repeatedly. He conflates inner-ring streetcar suburbs, which can be quite dense, with low-density exurbs. He treats the variety of American living styles as only two options, "suburbs" or "cities".


How does one use evidence for a guess of what America will look like in 40 years. No future that far away has any good data points from today. You can dissect all of the possible factors, but it's just a guess, really. As for his academic duties, I think it's just adjunct faculty. Kotkin is a writer by trade, not professor, though I understand he does some teaching.

There are so many things that could happen and also so many things that will quite possible have the opposite effect of what you think. Just imagine someone sitting around in the 1990s saying well gasoline is a buck a gallon, but if it quadruples by 2008, sprawl will cease to exist. Well, we've had quite a bit of "hinterland" development since then. Nobody knows what will happen and much of it is by accident, not proclamation.


We don't have any evidence about what the world will look like in 40 years, but we do have a clear idea of one constraint: the IPCC has said that the world must reduce CO2 emissions 50% by 2050 in order to have a 50-50 chance of avoiding the worst consequences of global warming.

Kotkin ignores that constraint completely. His ideas about planning would be disastrous environmentally.

Charles Siegel

I actually don't see that as a constraint

it's an issue, but there are so many other things that affect climate change other than urban design. Even transportation as a whole is just but one factor, not to mention the impact of developing countries. With all due respect to climatologists' intellect, even they have next to no idea what will be in 2050. Regardless of the condition of the planet, there is a distinct possibility that Dallas or Denver will still sprawl and grow as much as anything else. There are constraints, but the way we think about them in the future will likely be different.

Regardless of the Condition of the Planet

"Regardless of the condition of the planet, there is a distinct possibility that Dallas or Denver will still sprawl and grow as much as anything else."

I can agree with that. There is a distinct possibility that the condition of the planet will be miserable, and Dallas and Denver will continue to sprawl with no regard for their effect on the condition of the planet.

Charles Siegel

Populations don't grow in a vacuum.

Dallas and Denver will continue to sprawl with no regard for their effect on the condition of the planet.

They won't continue to sprawl if there is no water to support the population.

I suspect Denver area will begin to slow its growth, then depopulate during my lifetime. Surely my daughter's lifetime.



Completely ignorant of reality

The author is apparently completely ignorant of both peak oil and global climate change, or at least he thinks these are non-issues.

"Want" and "will" are not the same verbs

So, let's follow Kotkin's train of logic:

I WANT to live on my own private island in the South Pacific. Therefore, I WILL live on my own private island in the South Pacific. Woohoo for me!

That's a short train with a caboose at both ends.

Refutation of Kotkin Factoid

The new urban news has a good refutation of one factoid reported by NY Times columnist David Brooks in his summary of Kotkin's book:

the following statement, which Brooks apparently picked up from Kotkin: “For every 10 percent reduction in population density, the odds that people will join a local club rise by 15 percent.”

To see why that claim 1) is mathematically impossible and 2) has no empirical basis, go to:

Charles Siegel

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Book cover of Where Things Are from Near to Far

Where Things Are From Near to Far

This engaging children's book about planning illustrates that "every building has its place."
Wood necklace with city map

City Necklaces

These sweet pendants are engraved on a cedar charm with a mini map of selected cities. The perfect gift for friends and family or yourself!