November 15, 2015
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In the early 1990s, I attended the first-ever “Smart Growth” conference. Held in Sacramento, the event was hosted by Phil Angelides, the then-state treasurer and an eventual but unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate.
The idea behind smart growth was that cities would build vertically, and in the process reduce urban flight and alleviate sprawl that gobbles up irreplaceable rural land and productive farm acreage.
Smart growth was all the rage two decades ago, but not much is heard about it today, and with good reason.
In his fascinating Forbes article titled “So Much for the Death of Sprawl: America’s Exurbs are Booming,” Chapman University urban studies professor Joel Kotkin describes the suburbs’ rebirth driven mainly by a rapidly growing population that’s looking for good, affordable places to raise a family, newly constructed, well-appointed homes, easy access to good schools and to escape from high density, expensive, often unsafe urban areas.
Kotkin traces the renewed surge in suburban popularity to the period between 2010-2013 when, according to research from the Brookings Institution, suburbs first developed in the 1990s and early 2000s experienced a resurgence.
Citing Brookings demographer Bill Frey’s research, in 2010 new suburbs accounted for approximately 43 percent of all U.S. residents.
Then between July 2013 and July 2014, core urban communities lost an additional net 363,000 people who moved to suburban and what’s called “exurban” communities, which Frey defines as the “suburbiest” places to live.
Driving the phenomena of moving out from inner cities and to the exurbs is easily understood. People, especially young people, head to where the jobs are. The real estate consultancy firm Costar found that, between 2007 and 2013, more than 80 percent of employment growth occurred in suburbs and exurbs.
Findings from the Census Bureau released last month showed that 529,000 Americans ages 25 to 29 moved from cities out to the suburbs in 2014, while 426,000 moved in the other direction.
Among younger millennials, those in their early 20s, the trend was even more pronounced: 721,000 left the city compared with 554,000 who moved in.
Seniors have jumped on the suburban bandwagon, too. The 65 and older demographic is seven times more likely to buy a suburban house than move to an urban location, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Even California, and some of its most maligned areas, is part of the out-migration trend. Since 2012, the Inland Empire that includes Ontario, Riverside and San Bernardino has undergone faster population growth than either Los Angeles or Orange County.
Last year, San Bernardino County ranked third in California for job growth, behind suburban Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
Since inner cities have little if any room for development, and with millennials less inclined to live in urban areas, a continued flourishing of suburban living is all but guaranteed.
Planners’ challenge will be how to accommodate the 458 million people that the Census Bureau predicts will live in the United States by 2050, a big jump from today’s 322 million.
The inevitability of more rural areas lost to new housing suggests that Americans should take advantage of the nation’s dwindling open space available to them before it’s lost forever.