End of Suburbia? Kotkin Says No Way

Joel Kotkin once again leaps to the defense of the suburbs as a choice, and says that urbanists who are hoping that Americans will rush back into the cities are sadly mistaken.

"While millions of American families struggle with falling house prices, soaring gasoline costs and tightening credit, some environmentalists, urban planners and urban real estate speculators are welcoming the bad news as signaling what they have long dreamed of -- the demise of suburbia.

In a March Atlantic article, Christopher B. Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of urban planning, contended that yesterday's new suburbs will become "the slums" of tomorrow because high gas prices and the housing meltdown will force Americans back to the urban core. Leinberger is not alone. Other pundits, among them author James Howard Kunstler, who despises suburban aesthetics, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, see the pain in suburbia as a silver lining for urban revival.

Not so fast. The "out of the suburbs, back to the city" narrative rests more on anecdote than demographic or economic fact. Yes, high gas prices and rising sub-prime mortgage defaults are hurting some suburban communities, particularly newly built ones on the periphery. But the suburbs remain home to a majority of Americans and a larger proportion of U.S. families -- and people aren't leaving those communities in droves to live in cities. Even with economic growth slowing, many suburbs, exurbs and smaller towns, especially those whose economies are tied to energy, are continuing to do better than most cities in terms of job creation and population growth."

Full Story: Suburbia's not dead yet



Kotkin Also Gets The Demographics Wrong

Kotkin writes: "By the early part of the next decade, the large millennial generation born since the early 1980s will begin to form families, and they will, as have previous generations, probably seek open space and good schools for their children -- and that means they will settle in the suburbs."

But Leinberger pointed out in his Atlantic article that the overall demographic trend is that families with children will be a smaller portion of the population, as the overall population ages. He also pointed out that suburbs were overbuilt during the housing bubble: as I remember, he said that enough single-family suburban houses have already been built to accommodate the number of families projected in 2030. That is why he predicts that some of those houses will soon be converted into slum apartments.

Kotkin wants to go back to the 1950s, but the millenial generation and their children will not be as large a proportion of the population as families with children were in the 1950s.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

looking at the last oil price boom....

Public transit ridership rose by 25% between 1975 and 1980.

http://www2.census.gov/prod2/statcomp/documents/1984-05.pdf (Table 1083). So even though it may be wrong to suggest that the oil crisis will wipe out suburbs, it is equally wrong to suggest that it will leave the sprawl status quo totally intact.

Not as tidy as that

Rising energy prices will favor urbanization and discourage further suburbanization. The demographic "trend" that the author references - "the highly-venerated act" of settling down in the suburbs - reflects macro-choices made within a cheap energy regime. As energy prices continue to rise, however, these choices will begin to favor relocation to and establishment of mixed-use communities (be they traditional urban areas or not).

The author seems to liken humans to biologically-programmed migratory birds, forever fixed to return to the suburbs to nest, generation after generation.

The author's final paragraph is a fair assessment of the situation, however:

"Continuing rising energy prices will likely change the nation's geography, but not in ways some urban theorists are predicting. Rather than cramming more people and families into cities, they may instead foster a more dispersed, diverse archipelago of self-sufficient communities."

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"Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends." -Lewis Mumford

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