Friday, December 2, 2011

The un-death of Suburbia

Given how often I rant about bad journalism on this blog, I really, really, really want to turn my wrath on this incredibly misleading article from Institutional Investor, which was the subject of one of my tweets this morning. But honestly, I don't want to give this joker any more airtime than I've already given him, so let's move along.

Instead, I'll refer to what is in fact a very well-written and well-researched article (from Forbes) on the drastically over-reported death of Suburbia. In short, reports of Suburbia's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
This past weekend the New York Times devoted two big op-eds to the decline of the suburb. In one, new urban theorist Chris Leinberger said that Americans were increasingly abandoning “fringe suburbs” for dense, transit-oriented urban areas. In the other, UC Berkeley professor Louise Mozingo called for the demise of the “suburban office building” and the adoption of policies that will drive jobs away from the fringe and back to the urban core.
Perhaps no theology more grips the nation’s mainstream media — and the planning community — more than the notion of inevitable suburban decline. The Obama administration’s housing secretary, Shaun Donavan, recently claimed, “We’ve reached the limits of suburban development: People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities.”
Yet repeating a mantra incessantly does not make it true. Indeed, any analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census would make perfectly clear that rather than heading for density, Americans are voting with their feet in the opposite direction: toward the outer sections of the metropolis and to smaller, less dense cities. During the 2000s, the Census shows, just 8.6% of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs. That 8.6% represents a decline from the 1990s, when the figure was 15.4%.
Nor are Americans abandoning their basic attraction for single-family dwellings or automobile commuting. Over the past decade, single-family houses grew far more than either multifamily or attached homes, accounting for nearly 80% of all the new households in the 51 largest cities. And — contrary to the image of suburban desolation — detached housing retains a significantly lower vacancy rate than the multi-unit sector, which has also suffered a higher growth in vacancies even the crash.
I've definitely been on the record here before predicting that there will be a bit of a shift back to our nation's non-urban roots, as options for telecommuting make co-location of employees and their employers less and less important (and also less and less profitable--why would a company pay top dollar for commercial real estate when its employees can work just as effectively from their own homes?).

Many pundits have predicted that high gas prices will force commuters to move closer to their jobs (thus causing the shift from Suburbia back to the cities), but I argue that the opposite is more likely--their jobs will move closer to them. It doesn't make any sense for workers to move into the city to save on gas when it means they'll be paying twice as much in rent, as is often the case. In such a scenario, companies would essentially be faced with two options--pay their employees more, or allow them to work from home. Which one do you think is more likely?

I do understand that there is a certain social need (or at least preference) for living in big cities, and I fully appreciate the increased cultural options that cities provide. But the incredible density that a city like New York provides isn't necessarily... well, necessary. Over the next century or so, I definitely expect a shift away from the densest cities as telecommuting takes hold. This may lead to an increase in density in Suburbia, or it may just lead to a plethora of smaller cities around the country.

The Forbes article does admit that this very shift occurred during the pre-2007 housing boom--when cities like Phoenix, San Antonio, and Las Vegas grew rapidly--only to come crashing back in the other direction when the bubble burst. But I think this trend will revive itself in the coming decades, not because of another housing bubble but simply because the biggest cities simply aren't quite as relevant or as necessary as their huge rent price tags would suggest. Sooner or later, the people will realize this. That said, we could be waiting a while...

Either way, don't write off Suburbia just yet. The statistics show that the world outside the city limits is very much alive.


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