California in 2011: Suburbs Up, Exurbs Down?


I had the fortune recently to stumble on the California Department of Finance’s estimates of population change in California during the period July 1, 2010 – July 1- 2011. This is distinct from the Federal census, which tried to establish the number of people in all localities as of April 1, 2010. These California statistics are for a short period of only one year; they are not as reliable, of course, as a real census.  

Percentagewise, the county that grew fastest was a Sacramento suburban county called Placer, which grew by 1.45 per cent (or, I suppose, what financial people would call 145 basis points) during that one year. It was also only one of two California counties where more people moved to from within the United States than from outside the United States (the other being Riverside County). It was also  one of three where the number of people moving in over that moving out was greater than the excess of births over deaths, the other two being Napa County, which is suburban in its southern reaches before the grapes begin, and San Francisco County, which is known for, well, for not being big on baby-making. (Nevertheless San Francisco County did have a natural increase of 3,138 persons, whereas, as we shall see later, some rural counties had more deaths than births.)

But what came as a surprise  was that Placer’s sister county, El Dorado, also a Sacramento suburban county running up into the mountains, gained a mere 26 basis points; and the other foothill counties of the Gold Country actually lost population during the year! This came as a surprise to me, for I have a house in Calaveras County and in the past I had spent time there; the Gold Country seemed to be a haven for the semi-retired and the part-time worker and even the long distance commuter; and Grass Valley had the beginnings of a high tech industry spilling over from Silicon Valley.

I don’t know what the terms “suburb” and “exurb” mean to New Geography readers, but I have my own definition which seems handy enough to me. A “suburb” has subdivisions and planned communities; developers buy land, subdivide, and build homes or sell lots often with covenants of various kinds.  People still prefer suburbs – even ones quite distant from the urban cores – over the city, in part due to factors like cheaper housing, better schools, and newer amenities.

Exurbs are different. In an exurb, people split parcels into smaller lots, sell the lots, and then people build custom houses on them with no covenants (except maybe a few easements) and any architectural style the government will allow and perhaps a few they don’t. A good place to see the contrast is in the area just north of Cajon Pass. Victorville, Adelanto, and parts of Hesperia and Apple Valley abound with subdivisions, like the Orange County of my youth. But if you go a little bit to the southwest, around Pinnon Hills and Phelan, there is not a “subdivision” to be seen, and yet houses and, on the road, commercial establishments get thicker and thicker every year. (I have, on occasion for the past 25 years, taken the road to the monastery at Valyermo from Orange County, and I have seen these changes.)

Overall, it looks like the “suburbs” are growing – far more than the cities –  while the “exurbs” are not. Placer County is an explosion of subdivided suburbs and “planned communities” as far as Newcastle and Lincoln.

In contrast, El Dorado has some of these in its west end, but they are not expanding much. And the other Gold Country Counties, Nevada, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mariposa, all of which shrank slightly in population, fit my definition of “exurban” – they have exurbs, and they are not very agricultural unless you count backyard wine and marijuana patches.  These areas had been much sought out since the inflationary “survivalist” days of the 1970s. Now, it seems, the economy and gasoline prices are not affecting the prosperity and desirability of organized suburbia, but they are making the areas beyond organized suburbia less desirable than they used to be. I wonder if this is a nationwide trend.

Another discovery may point to the age of residents in various counties. Of the counties that actually lost population over the year the three on the Redwood Coast  – Del Norte, Humboldt, and Mendocino – did so in spite of having an excess of births over deaths. So did the two in the far northeast, Modoc and Lassen. To read that a county in California lost population is in the “this I have lived to see” category.

Oddly, did one county in the Central Valley also declined. Kings, which is metropolitan Hanford, declined despite the fact that next door Tulare County was a big gainer; and Inyo County – home of Bishop, Lone Pine, and Death Valley – had an identical number of births and deaths. On the other hand, the Gold Country counties I mentioned – plus Sierra, Plumas, Siskiyou, Trinity, and Lake, outside the Sacramento Valley – had an excess of deaths over births. Perhaps these particular counties, more than the others, had been settled by retirees or empty nesters, who were no longer having children.

For its part, the rain-drenched Redwood Coast and the far northeast were less attractive, apparently, to retirees. In the counties not attractive to retirees, natural increase exceeded even immigration from outside the United States, which was positive in every county except Alpine, where it was exactly zero. Also, only in the aforementioned Placer and Napa Counties, and the City of San Francisco, did inward migration of any kind – from the U.S. or outside – exceed the “natural increase.”

The “native Californian,” once a slightly exotic phenomenon, seems to be becoming the norm. The days of what Carey McWilliams called, in his book title of 70 years ago, California: The Great Exception, seem to be at an end. We have entered a world we never knew before. California may become, at long less, less exceptional, still sprawling but in a more organized fashion.

Howard Ahmanson of Fieldstead and Company, a private management firm, has been interested in these issues for many years.

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@davebarnes: I don't know

@davebarnes: I don't know how to do foreign letters on my computer, so I knew that the tilde is an abbreviation for a following N.


"Pinnon Hills"?
Did you mean Piñon Hills?

Dave Barnes