The Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration


Pundits, planners and urban visionaries—citing everything from changing demographics, soaring energy prices, the rise of the so-called "creative class," and the need to battle global warming—have been predicting for years that America's love affair with the suburbs will soon be over. Their voices have grown louder since the onset of the housing crisis. Suburban neighborhoods, as the Atlantic magazine put it in March 2008, would morph into "the new slums" as people trek back to dense urban spaces.

But the great migration back to the city hasn't occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased. Meanwhile, demographer Wendell Cox's analysis of census figures show that a much-celebrated rise in the percentage of multifamily housing peaked at 40% of all new housing permits in 2008, and it has since fallen to below 20% of the total, slightly lower than in 2000.

Housing prices in and around the nation's urban cores is clear evidence that the back-to-the-city movement is wishful thinking. Despite cheerleading from individuals such as University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida, and Carole Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities and the Urban Land Institute, this movement has crashed in ways that match—and in some cases exceed—the losses suffered in suburban and even exurban locations. Condos in particular are a bellwether: Downtown areas, stuffed with new condos, have suffered some of the worst housing busts in the nation.

Take Miami, once a poster child for urban revitalization. According to National Association of Realtors data, the median condominium price in the Miami metropolitan area has dropped 75% from its 2007 peak, far worse than 50% decline suffered in the market for single family homes.

Then there's Los Angeles. Over the last year, according to the real estate website, single-family home prices in the Los Angeles region have rebounded by a modest 10%. But the downtown condo market has lost over 18% of its value. Many ambitious new projects, like Eli Broad's grandiose Grand Avenue Development, remain on long-term hold.

The story in downtown Las Vegas is massive overbuilding and vacancies. The Review Journal recently reported a nearly 21-year supply of unsold condominium units. MGM City Center developer Larry Murren stated this spring that he wished he had built half as many units. Mr. Murren cites a seminar on mixed-use development—a commonplace event in many cities over the past few years—as sparking his overenthusiasm. He's not the only developer who has admitted being misled.

Behind the condo bust is a simple error: people's stated preferences. Virtually every survey of opinion, including a 2004 poll co-sponsored by Smart Growth America, a group dedicated to promoting urban density, found that roughly 13% of Americans prefer to live in an urban environment while 33% prefer suburbs, and another 18% like exurbs. These patterns have been fairly consistent over the last several decades.

Demographic trends, including an oft-predicted tsunami of Baby Boom "empty nesters" to urban cores, have been misread. True, some wealthy individuals have moved to downtown lofts. But roughly three quarters of retirees in the first bloc of retiring baby boomers are sticking pretty close to the suburbs, where the vast majority now reside. Those that do migrate, notes University of Arizona Urban Planning Professor Sandi Rosenbloom, tend to head further out into the suburban periphery. "Everybody in this business wants to talk about the odd person who moves downtown, but it's basically a 'man bites dog story,'" she says. "Most retire in place."

Historically, immigrants have helped prop up urban markets. But since 1980 the percentage who settle in urban areas has dropped to 34% from 41%. Some 52% are now living in suburbs, up from 44% 30 years ago. This has turned places such as Bergen County, N.J., Fort Bend County, Texas, and the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles into the ultimate exemplars of multicultural America.

What about the "millennials"—the generation born after 1983? Research by analysts Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, authors of the ground-breaking "Millennial Makeover," indicates this group is even more suburban-centric than their boomer parents. Urban areas do exercise great allure to well-educated younger people, particularly in their 20s and early 30s. But what about when they marry and have families, as four in five intend? A recent survey of millennials by Frank Magid and Associates, a major survey research firm, found that although roughly 18% consider the city "an ideal place to live," some 43% envision the suburbs as their preferred long-term destination.

Urban centers will continue to represent an important, if comparatively small, part of the rapidly evolving American landscape. With as many as 100 million more Americans by 2050, they could enjoy a growth of somewhere between 10 million and 20 million more people. And in the short run, the collapse of the high-end condo market could provide opportunity for young and unmarried people to move into luxurious urban housing at bargain rates.

But lower prices, or a shift to rentals, could prove financially devastating for urban developers and their investors, who now may be slow to re-enter the market. And for many cities, the bust could represent a punishing fiscal blow, given the subsidies lavished on many projects during the era of urbanist frenzy.

The condo bust should provide a cautionary tale for developers, planners and the urban political class, particularly those political "progressives" who favor using regulatory and fiscal tools to promote urban densification. It is simply delusional to try forcing a market beyond proven demand.

Rather than ignore consumer choice, cities and suburbs need to focus on basic tasks like creating jobs, improving schools, developing cultural amenities and promoting public safety. It is these more mundane steps—not utopian theory or regulatory diktats—that ultimately make successful communities.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

Photo by miamism

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"it's more efficient,

"it's more efficient, reduces environmental costs, saves people time and/or money on transportation, improves their health by encouraging exercise, and offers them opportunities for social interactions. No urbanists I know are denying that suburbia is currently the prevailing preference, they just don't think it should be. "

As someone who grew up in the sticks and later moved to a series of major cities on both coasts I can tell you from personal experience that urban living isn't necessarily better than suburban living. If anything they're in my mind equivalent and share an equal proportion of negative and positive aspects. What's left out of the comparison is rural living.

Urban living is more expensive, fraught with infrastructural inefficiencies such as the prevalence of poor public schools, poor road repair, poor government spending habits, higher taxes, higher costs in housing, and heightened exposure to pollution due to higher concentrations of carbon monoxide and other pollutants from cars, trucks, and in the case of port cities- ships and freight trains. According to more recent studies just living in NYC is basically the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.

Suburban living has a generally lower cost of living, but as you mentioned less access to social interaction. I'd argue that most people who move to the burbs are more concerned about rearing children than going to the opera or the latest art gallery opening. There is generally less choices for food, music, and cultural activities. There is also a generally more "bland" atmosphere.

...But then there are smaller cities that give you more flexibility where you could theoretically have the best of both worlds. A good example is Nashville, TN. Its a city of only 450,000 people. The city itself is so small you can walk through it in about an hour or so. In 10 minutes you're out in the sticks. Its actually possible to live in the country and work in the city. I grew up around there and even today if you get on the freeway during rush hour you can be in or out of the city in minutes. That's not possible in cities like NYC, Atlanta, or LA.

As for me personally I think the best form of living is country living, where you have more control over your environment, can be more independent, and if you own enough land- who cares about entertainment?

When can we see something new, Joel?

I used to just see these arguments as being valueless. After a while, they just got boring. Now, it's just sad. You continue to make the same argument over and over again, and I'd wish you'd elaborate, and tell us something more.

The problem is not that you're wrong on the issue of urbanism: the problem is that you offer no reasons you should be right. In other words, it's unconvincing. It's hurting your cause more than its hurting urbanism. You don't need to convince the people that already think urbanists are wrong. You need to convince those who thing they are right. If you continue to do this, we will continue to see urbanism enacted as policy across the nation.

This is because this argument--your worn-out, go-to "Americans want suburbia" vitriol--offers no real reason to believe that suburbia is a better urban pattern than urbanism. It offers nothing to explain why Americans should prefer this option. It only says that they do. So what? Urbanists offer numerous reasons why urbanism is a better choice for the future: it's more efficient, reduces environmental costs, saves people time and/or money on transportation, improves their health by encouraging exercise, and offers them opportunities for social interactions. No urbanists I know are denying that suburbia is currently the prevailing preference, they just don't think it should be.

What does suburbia do that's positive? Why should we prefer it? You have yet to explain the answer to this question. And it's very badly needed. That it's "popular" is not reason enough. There have been numerous bad ideas--from alcohol prohibition to the Japanese internment to the Crusades--that were all "popular" at the time. It never meant that they were right.

I also agree that basing a

I also agree that basing a decision on condo sales in Miami, Vegas, and LA to determine the trend in metro living and pegging migratory trends isn't the best measure. As pointed out by even this site, most people would prefer a SFH over a condo. All you have to do is take a drive around my East Bay San Francisco area neighborhood and see the Bimmers and Mercedes parked in front of a cute 3 bedroom house that the owner paid $550k for. While the bust took a bite out of the prices, they are still high. Thus there is a big demand for urban houses in desirable metros.

I grew up in the sticks. Literally. A 500 person town in the rural South. A house with land there ( A nice house at that) can be had for under $150,000. The same house and land where I live now in the Bay Area would be several million. There is a massive disparity in the cost of living across the US and the migratory trends reflect this in the numbers showing the lower cost, primarily Southern states winning the lion's share of domestic migrants. Most of these migrants are heading to other cities. Smaller yet rapidly growing metros with median home prices under $200k. This is the price pain point is the single biggest indicator of domestic migration. Americans will move where the opportunity exists. Cities that have become overly gentrified will continue to lose population until some sort of equilibrium is reached.

As for me, renting and working in the Bay Area has meant I can save quite a bit of my income which will later be used to buy a home for cash and then some in one of the Southern states of my choosing. Its like moving from one country to another where my "California dollars" allows me to live like a king elsewhere. So at least there is that advantage. Personally I can't wait to leave this state. Its been fun but the cost of living is obscene.

American Urban Myths

American cities, New York is the best example, are designed to accommodate immigrants, poor descendants of prior generations of immigrants and the rich. The first two groups send their children to public schools while the third group send their children to elite private schools where their future place in society is secured. The middle and upper middle classes usually get a better deal in the suburbs where the cost of living is lower and the public schools are far, far better. This, coupled with the fact that the U.S. is land rich, has an individualist culture and a significant disparity in incomes across the population means that America's urban regions spread out. Joel Kotkin is simply observing the reality on the ground in the U.S.

Japanese cities on the other hand, Tokyo is the best example, are designed to accommodate the average Japanese person. There are few immigrants to speak of, relatively few are poor and relatively few rich. Most people are therefore average, that is, in the broad middle class. In addition, most good jobs are located in city central areas since Japanese want to work in an environment where they can spend the day working with colleagues and their evenings drinking with them. Not surprisingly, public schools are consistently good to a standard most everywhere and public transport (especially high density rail) is of the highest quality.

The result is that, even as the national population stagnates, the urban centers of cities like Tokyo and Osaka have been experiencing robust population growth for the past decade. Unlike America, young Japanese want to live near city centers and have urban amenities at their fingertips.

All of this points out that central city growth trends are cultural in origin. Joel Kotkin correctly points out the dichotomy between American cultural reality, the wide open spaces of America (in spite of population growth) and and "progressive" notions of urban idealism.

Re: Back to city movement

I am 25 years old and would like to live in a place in which my family can ride bicycles without fear and get to wherever we want. Unfortunately the U.S. does not put this as a priority. My biggest beef with new development is that most don't connect the streets in a logical grid or interface with transit or consider pedestrians and cyclists in their plans.

Very few people want to live in a flat.

1. Living in a little box inside a bigger box is just not that attractive.
Not for North Americans and not for most people in the world. People don't necessarily want "35 acres and a mule", but they do want some private green space, a place for the dog to run and windows all around their abode.

2. In the USA, most (all?) cities' school systems suck. The burbs are almost always better. When you have kids, you immediately start thinking about your children's education. Only the rich parents can afford to live in the city and send their kids to private schools.

Dave Barnes
WebEnhancement Services Worldwide

Yes and no

To begin with, I would not base the poor sales of condos that were geared towards people who were looking for their 2nd or 3rd property as a sign that urbanism is dead.

Developers were not being "misled." Developers have misread.

People want urban, but "urban" does not mean high-rise condos. Look no further than parts of Dallas proper that were built along streetcar lines. Homes had, still do have, their yards. But they are walking distance to small shopping strips that blend into neighborhood. There is not a sea parking lots you have to cross to get something to get coffee or drop your clothes off at the cleaner.

As you have noted, people will probably no longer commute to work and will work from home. Well, those people who work at home do not necessarily want to commute to get a gallon of milk.