So Where Should We Plan on People Living in the Future?

Steven Polzin's picture

Having become something of a junkie who overdoses on political and economic news, it is only natural that I try to help justify that time investment by scouring the news for tidbits that have professional relevance.  Just this past week several things have come across my monitor that have made me reflect. 

First, an article from BusinessWeek that ranked cities on happiness.  What was perhaps most intriguing was that the top ranked city for unhappiness is Portland, Oregon, the city that many planners hold up as Nirvana.  The city where planner pilgrimages are rumored to be the source of over half the tourism.  Scrolling down the list in this kind of silly survey I was unable to see any compelling correlation between those features planners tend to use as metrics of goodness or badness and city rank. [2) St. Louis, Mo; 3) New Orleans, La.; 4) Detroit, Mich.;5) Cleveland, Ohio; 6) Jacksonville, Fla.; 7) Las Vegas, Nev.; 8) Nashville-Davidson, Tenn.; 9) Cincinnati, Ohio; 10) Atlanta, Ga.; 11) Milwaukee, Wis.; 12) Sacramento, Calif.; 13) Kansas City, Mo.; 14) Pittsburgh, Pa.; 15) Memphis, Tenn.; 16) Indianapolis City, Ind.; 17) Louisville, Ky.; 18) Tucson, Ariz.; 19) Minneapolis, Minn.; 20) Seattle, Wash.]. 

Maybe climate change will help Portland since one of the components of the unhappiness measure where Portland struggled was the count of 222 cloudy days.  Those friendly Portland neighborhoods might also be a little too friendly since Portland ranked fourth in divorces. 

BusinessWeek ranks Portland at top of "unhappiest cities" list

by The Oregonian, Monday March 02, 2009

Portland has found itself at the top of another list, but not the kind you can brag about.  A staggering jump in calls to a crisis intervention hotline, high rates of depression and divorce have landed Portland atop BusinessWeek's list of unhappiest American cities.

Then there was the report from EPA.

"Washington, D.C. -  Feb. 27, 2009EPA is today releasing a new report Residential Construction Trends in Americas Metropolitan Region which examines building trends in the 50 largest metropolitan areas from 1990 to 2007.  The report shows that while a large share of new residential construction still takes place on previously undeveloped land at the urban fringe, more than half of the county's larger metro regions have seen a sharp increase in residential building in urban core areas. EPA believes this trend reflects growing appreciation in many communities for smart growth development that reuses already developed property and infrastructure, protects air and water quality, and preserves natural lands and critical environmental areas."  

The descriptive report was interesting and well qualified, unlike the interpretative comments in the press release that ascribed a motivation to this short term trend absent any data to draw that conclusion.  It will be interesting to see what happens when the housing market stabilizes. 

Finally, the Pew Center released a January 2009 report on where people like to live. 

A new national survey by the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project finds that nearly half (46%) of the public would rather live in a different type of community from the one they're living in now- a sentiment that is most prevalent among city dwellers. When asked about specific metropolitan areas where they would like to live, respondents rank Denver, San Diego and Seattle at the top of a list of 30 cities, and Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati at the bottom.  Other survey findings include:

• Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town, 25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area. 

• By a ratio of more than three-to-one, Americans prefer living where the pace of life is slow, not fast. A similarly lopsided majority prefer a place where neighbors know each other well to one where neighbors don't generally know each other's business.

For Nearly Half of America, Grass Is Greener Somewhere Else, January 29, 2009 

So what does this all mean?  No evidence of a stampede to get back to the city.  Future residential locations will be determined by some combination of consumer preferences, developer and financial interests and the impact of planners and government policy and regulation.  While the development community is unlikely to get to far askew of the consumer for any length of time, the greatest uncertainty will be the role of government in either changing consumer preferences, prescribing a future oblivious to those preferences, or responding to those preferences and planning so as to help in realizing those preferences. 

It promises to be interesting.  

P.S.  By the way, Portland ranked better in the Pew survey, 8th most popular, but well below Tampa.

Steven Polzin is the director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.



Raising Families & Urban Living

I don't read much about families in writing on the "trend" toward more urban living. While in grad school, we loved living downtown but everyone we knew who were raising kids lived in the suburbs. There are reasons for this - reasons that aren't dealt with seriously in most works that trash the suburbs.

I was reminded of this when I came across the Business Week piece on "The Best Places To Raise Your Kids":

Most of the "places" are under a couple of hundred thousand in population - which probably means most of the housing for those kids is in single-family suburban homes.

It would be great to see how a planner, urban designer, architect or landscape architect might design a dense community that realistically deals with the conditions that make suburban living attractive for families. Better yet would be a "zoning" scheme that allows such living to be created by real businesses, developers, designers and government.

Paul Deering
Deering Design

Michael Lewyn's picture


In response to Deering's query: I visited Stapleton in Denver while in that city for the Congress for New Urbanism. I wouldn't call Stapleton a "dense" community but to a much greater extent than most suburbs, it does try to combine some features of new urbanism with kid-friendliness. My sense, from both what I saw and discussions with residents, is that there are lots and lots of children there, and lots of attempts to accommodate them (primarily through enormous amounts of park/play space). By contrast, in the suburbs I grew up in (and where my nephew and nieces live), children are essentially invisible: whisked around from school to home to lesson in mommy's car.

There Are Suburbs And There Are Suburbs

It doesn't make sense to lump all suburbs together, as the Pew survey does.

There are sprawl suburbs, where people live 2 per acre on cul-de-sacs and cannot leave their houses without driving.

There are streetcar suburbs, where people live 10 per acre near Main-Street shopping, and have the option of walking or driving.

And I recently talked to someone who told me she lives in a "suburb of Amsterdam," in a row house where she and her family walk and bicycle as their main means of transportation. She drives just once a week to take her children to music lessons.

When people responding to the survey say they want to live in suburbs, which of these do they want? Do they even know that the options exist?

Charles Siegel

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