The future of America’s suburbs looks infinite
AP Photo/Reed SaxonBanners advertise new townhomes in the foreground as work continues on dozens of new homes in the distance in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005.
By JOEL KOTKIN and ALAN M. BERGER | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: November 18, 2017 at 8:00 pm | UPDATED: November 19, 2017 at 10:31 am
Just a decade ago, in the midst of the financial crisis, suburbia’s future seemed perilous, with experts claiming that many suburban tracks were about to become “the next slums.” The head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development proclaimed that “sprawl” was now doomed, and people were “headed back to the city.”
This story reflected strong revivals of many core cities, and deep-seated pain in many suburban markets. Yet today, less than a decade later, as we argue in the new book that we co-edited, “Infinite Suburbia,” the periphery remains the dominant, and fastest growing, part of the American landscape.
This is not just occurring in the United States. In many other countries, as NYU’s Solly Angel has pointed out, growth inevitably means “spreading out” toward the periphery, with lower densities, where housing is often cheaper, and, in many cases, families find a better option than those presented by even the most dynamic core cities.
Reality check: What the numbers say
Less than a decade since the housing crisis, notes demographer Wendell Cox, barely 1.3 percent of metropolitan regions live in the urban cores we associate with places like New York City, Boston, Washington or San Francisco.
Counting the inner ring communities built largely before 1950, the urban total rises to some 15 percent, leaving the vast majority of the population out in the periphery. More important still, the suburban areas have continued to grow faster than the more inner-city areas. Since 2010, the urban core has accounted for .8 percent of all population growth and the entire inner ring roughly 10 percent; all other growth has occurred in suburban and exurban areas.
Much of this has been driven by migration patterns. In 2016, core counties lost roughly over 300,000 net domestic migrants while outlying areas gained roughly 250,000. Increasingly, millennials seek out single-family homes; rather than the predicted glut of such homes, there’s a severe shortage. Geographer Ali Modarres notes that minorities, the primary drivers of American population growth in the new century, now live in suburbs. The immigrant-rich San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire, Orange County and their analogues elsewhere, Modarres suggests, now represents “the quintessential urban form” for the 21st century.
Where the action is
Some maintain that as they have become more diverse, suburbs have become the largest geography for poverty. This is indeed true, and unsurprising, given the hugely larger share of population in suburbs, but poverty rates in suburbs remain roughly half those in core cities.
Overall, what suburbia dominates is the geography of the middle class. All but four of top 20 large counties with the highest percentage of households earning over $75,000 annually are suburban, according to research by Chapman University’s Erika Nicole Orejola. One reason: Most job growth takes place in the periphery. Even with the higher job density of downtowns, the urban core and its adjacent areas account for less than one-fifth of all jobs, and since 2010 this pattern has persisted.
Some urban cores, such as Manhattan and San Francisco, dominate many high-wage sectors, notably media and finance, but much tech growth remains clustered in low density regions, whether in Silicon Valley, Raleigh-Durham, north Austin or Orange County. Urban theorist Richard Florida has found that suburbs generate the bulk of patents; in fact, three-quarters come from areas with less 3,500 people per square mile, less than half the density associated with urban centers.
The final argument
Those who wish to demean suburbia often claim that suburban living is more unhealthful than living closer to the urban core. But the County Health Rankings project reveals that residents in suburban metro counties enjoy lower rates of premature death (years of potential life lost before age 75) than those who live in other types of counties, including urban ones, and a better health-related quality of life. Moreover, lower density development allows suburbs to save cities from themselves by providing the ecosystem services for cleaner air, water storage and absorption, and solar energy production high density cities are ill-suited to provide.
Suburbs, being spread out and largely car-based, are often attacked as being disproportionate creators of greenhouse gases linked the climate change. However, research being done for the first time on the household scale suggests that urban cores and exurbs may produce more GHG than suburban areas. This will certainly be the case when electrified autonomous cars hit mass market. Autonomous intersections alone could produce an estimated 20 to 50 percent less carbon dioxide, because there would be fewer idling cars and jack-rabbit starts, suggests Remi Tachet des Combes, a mathematician who created robot-intersection models while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
New technology, as well as the growth of work at home, can create the basis for more sustainable suburbs, and, if estimates from the consulting firm Bain are correct, enough momentum that by 2025, more people will live in exurbs than in the urban core. Ultimately the future of suburbia need not be as dismal as the critics suggest, but one that forms a critical, even preeminent, part of the nation’s evolving urban tapestry.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org). Alan M. Berger is co-director of the MIT Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism and co-editor of Infinite Suburbia (Princeton Architectural Press).
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