Let's Not Fool Ourselves on Urban Growth

There has been a lot written lately about the return to the city. I’ve noted myself how places like central Indianapolis have reversed decades of population declines. That’s exciting. And the New York Times, for example, just trumpeted how “smart growth is taking hold” in America.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. In my view this represents a possible inflection point, but it is way too early for the type of triumphalist rhetoric being bandied about by advocates.

Let’s take a look at the change in the regional population share in core counties in 2009 vs. 2008 for the Midwest cities I typically focus on.

City  Core County Share Change   2009 Core County Share   2008 Core County Share 
Columbus 0.02% 63.83% 63.81%
Pittsburgh 0.02% 51.74% 51.72%
Milwaukee (0.01%) 61.52% 61.53%
Minneapolis-St. Paul (0.02%) 50.84% 50.86%
Chicago (0.06%) 55.19% 55.24%
Louisville (0.07%) 57.33% 57.41%
Kansas City (0.11%) 34.13% 34.25%
Cincinnati (0.17%) 39.37% 39.54%
St. Louis (0.18%) 47.68% 47.86%
Indianapolis (0.23%) 51.09% 51.32%
Cleveland (0.26%) 61.00% 61.26%
Detroit (0.32%) 43.47% 44.06%

For St. Louis, I use St. Louis city + St. Louis County as the core. For Minneapolis-St. Paul, I used Hennepin+Ramsey as the core.

As you can see, only two regions managed to increase core county share of population, and these by a minuscule amount. Everyone else lost core county share. Keep in mind that even these “core” counties have many places with suburban characteristics. Now you might prefer a purely core city measure, and if so, be my guest. But don’t be surprised if the data gets even worse in many cases. Even in Chicago, which might have experienced the biggest urban core construction boom in America, the city lost population while Cook County gained it. Looking at the core city would make Chicago’s share loss worse.

I think this shows there is still some work to do, to put it mildly.

So why the difference versus the EPA study the NYT trumpets? Well, for one thing, the EPA study is worthless as a measure of urban health. They measure only new building permits, not people. This I think taps into a subtle suburban mindset in our outlook, that new housing units must represent net new inventory and net new people moving in, but in urban areas that’s not necessarily the case.

The sad fact is, many of our urban cores have experienced significant housing abandonment and demolition. So in addition to construction of net new units, there’s a countervailing force of reduction. For example, the greater downtown area of Indianapolis has been seeing lots of construction. But the regional center comprehensive plan noted that between 1990 and 2000, the net number of dwelling units actually decreased. “The actual number of housing units declined over the 10-year period as some housing became dilapidated or was demolished and as some projects were emptied to await renovation (the Census only counts habitable units).”

What’s more, as yuppies move in, and others move out, there is bound to be an effect on household sizes. Is it is really a good idea to price out larger immigrant families to the inner ring suburbs so that DINK’s can move in? How’s that for the environmental footprint of the region?

I’m glad we’ve got big increases in urban construction and even population increases in some neighborhoods, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves by trumpeting a “fundamental shift”, as the EPA does, when the demographics don’t back it up.

The New York Times article is also a disappointment. It fails to do any independent analysis of the data and only talks to people who are cheerleaders for the study, making it a sad piece of journalism.

Someone recently described me as an “apologist for sprawl”. I in no uncertain terms reject that label. I am a passionate urban advocate who wants to see our core cities thrive and prosper. I want more growth there. I live in a city in a walkable neighborhood and rarely drive.

But advocacy research of the type urbanists are quick to decry in others does a disservice to the cause. To change the trajectory of our cities and our built environment in America, we need to start with something called “reality”. I am optimistic that there’s a change in the air. But let’s not make claims about “fundamental shifts” that are simply not supported by any realistic look at the totality of the data.

This post first appeared at The Urbanophile.

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interesting points

I think this makes some interesting points...although you can't draw strong conclusions from year-to-year changes in population estimates. There is so much abandonment in Detroit and Cleveland that is is hard to see an uptick in center city construction as a return to the center city.

However, I think the EPA study is very accurate in describing urban growth trends in regions with healthy center cities -- SF, NYC, LA, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Miami etc. In New York, two-thirds of regional housing construction is in the 5 boroughs, compared to 15% in the early 90s -- that is a very meaningful change in development trends. And the report also makes a very powerful point that the center city share of housing construction increased all over the country in the 2000s compared to the 1990s, in nearly every large metropolitan region. You could certainly say there is a "fundamental shift" occurring in favor of the center city, although clearly it has not extended everywhere.


@Peter, did that report do anything to break out growth in the core of Denver versus suburban Denver? The reason I ask is that while growth in Denver has been very healthy, a lof it is due to Stapleton (some would argue it's more suburban in nature than urban) and land that it's annexed out to it's airport (Green Valley Ranch, et al.)