Among university professors, government planners and mainstream pundits there is little doubt that the best city is the densest one. This notion is also supported by a wide number of politically connected developers, who see in the cramming of Americans into ever smaller spaces an opportunity for vast, often taxpayer-subsidized, profiteering.
More recently density advocates cite a much-discussed study of geographic variations in upward mobility as suggesting that living in a spread-out city hurts children’s prospects in life. “Sprawl may be killing Horatio Alger,” quipped economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
Yet the study actually found the highest rates of upward mobility not in dense cities, but in relatively spread-out places like Salt Lake City, small cities of the Great Plains such as Bismarck, N.D.; Yankton, S.D.; and Pecos, Texas — all showed bottom to top mobility rates more than double New York City. And we shouldn’t forget the success story of Bakersfield, Calif., a city Columbia University urban planning professor David King wryly labeled “a poster child for sprawl.” Rather than an ode to bigness, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the study found that commuting zones (similar to metropolitan areas) with populations under 100,000 — smaller cities that tend to be sprawled by nature — have the highest average upward income mobility.
“Sprawl” did not kill Detroit, as Krugman suggests in his previously mentioned column, the city did that largely to itself. Another like-minded critic, historian Steven Conn, blames the auto industry for the city’s problems, perhaps not recognizing Detroit would be little more than a more southerly Duluth without it.
There are at least three major problems with the thesis that density is an unabashed good. First, and foremost, Census and survey data reveal that most people do not want to live cheek to jowl if they can avoid it. Second, most of the attractive highest-density areas also have impossibly high home prices relative to incomes and low levels of homeownership. And third, and perhaps most important, dense places tend to be regarded as poor places for raising families. In simple terms, a dense future is likely to be a largely childless one.
Let’s start with something few density advocates consider: what people want and what they would choose if they could. Roughly four in five buyers, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the National Association of Realtors, prefer a single-family home. This preference can be seen in the vastly greater construction of single-family houses in the past decade: Between 2000 and 2011, detached houses accounted for 83% of the net additions to the occupied U.S. housing stock. The percentage of single-family homes in the total housing mix last decade was more than one-fifth higher than in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the pattern is not likely to end, barring a longer-term recession or government edict. As the number of households once again begins to rise and birthrates tick up, single-family homes are once again leading housing growth.
Buyers of single-family homes are not necessarily embracing exurban lifestyles so much as reacting to basic economic factors. In many cases the nicest single-family districts closest to work and amenities are prohibitively expensive — think Beverly Hills or Studio City in the L.A. area, Bethesda near Washington, or Evanston outside Chicago. People move further out in order to afford something better than an apartment.
The last decennial Census shows us definitively that people tend to head toward the periphery. Barely 6% of Americans live in densities of over 10,000 per square mile, and the fastest-growing central cities between 2000 and 2010 — such as Raleigh, Charlotte and Austin — have average densities less than a third as intense as places like New York, Chicago, Or Los Angeles.
Overall, domestic migrants tend to be moving away from these denser metropolitan areas. Between 2000 and 2010, a net 1.9 million people left New York, 1.3 million left Los Angeles, 340,000 left San Francisco, while 230,000 left San Jose and Boston. In contrast, some of the largest in-migration has taken place over the past decade, as well as since 2010, in relatively sprawling cities, including Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Nashville.
Our perceptions of density are often distorted by media coverage, which tends to revolve around city centers. To be sure many downtown areas have experienced impressive growth, but this accounted for less than 1% of the 27 million expansion in the U.S. population between 2000 and 2010. In reality virtually all net population growth in the nation took place in counties with under 2,500 persons per square mile. The total population increase in counties with under 500 people per square mile was more than 30 times that of the growth in counties with densities of 10,000 and greater.
Some inner suburbs may be struggling adjacent to some hard-pressed cities, as is often highlighted by density advocates, but they are thriving in areas where prices are reasonable and the economy is strong. In Houston, arguably America’s most economically vibrant big metro area, over 80% of homes sales in 2012 were outside Beltway 8, the city’s second ring. The city’s inner ring, inside the 610 loop, has experienced an impressive revival, but still it only accounted for 6% of home sales last year.
There is clearly a growing chasm between affordable, family-friendly cities and those that, frankly, are not. Until the 1970s, in virtually all American metropolitan areas, a median-priced home cost roughly three years’ median income. This equilibrium was smashed by the imposition in some states of “smart” land-use policies that seek to limit or even prohibit suburban building, huge impact fees, as well as in some markets, massive investment from speculators.
As a result, many of the metro areas beloved by density advocates, such as New York and San Francisco, now have median home price multiples well over 6 or 7; if current trends continue, they could, as occurred during the last housing boom, reach upward of 10. Not surprisingly, these areas all have low rates of homeownership compared to the national average. For example, in New York and Los Angeles, the homeownership rate is half or less than the national figure of 65%. This is particularly true among working class and minority households. Atlanta’s African-American home ownership rate is approximately 40% above those of San Jose and Los Angeles, approximately 50% higher than Boston, San Francisco and Portland, and nearly 60% higher than New York.
All these factors are particularly relevant to one group: families. Much of contemporary urban theory rests on the idea of weakening family connections: fewer marriages and lower birthrates will decrease the appetite for lower-density housing. Families do not make up the prime market for dense housing; married couples with children constitute barely 10% of apartment residents, less than half the percentage for the population overall.
Families also generally settle in less dense parts of cities, suburban or exurban areas; the places with the lowest percentage of households with children include favored abodes of the density lobby such as New York (particularly Manhattan), as well as Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. In contrast the metropolitan areas with the strongest growth in their child populations — Raleigh, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City — have much lower densities and far smaller urban cores.
This flight from density among families is not merely an American phenomena. There are far higher percentages of families with children in the suburbs of Tokyo, London and Toronto than within the inner rings. The ultra dense cities of East Asia — Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul — have among the lowest fertility rates on the planet. Tokyo and Seoul now have fertility rates around 1 while Shanghai’s has fallen to 0.7, among the lowest of any city ever recorded, well below China’s “one child” mandate and barely one-third the number required simply to replace the current population.
Some have suggested that the Obama administration is conspiring to turn American cities into high-rise forests. But the coalition favoring forced densification — greens, planners, architects, developers, land speculators — predates Obama. They have gained strength by selling densification, however dubiously, as what planner and architect Peter Calthorpe calls “a climate change antibiotic.” Not surprisingly, there’s less self interest in promoting more effective greenhouse gas reduction policies such as boosting work at home and lower-emissions cars.
The density agenda need to be knocked off its perch as the summum bonum of planning policy. These policies may not hurt older Americans, like me, who bought their homes decades ago, but will weigh heavily on the already hard-pressed young adult population. Unless the drive for densification is relaxed in favor of a responsible but largely market-based approach open to diverse housing options, our children can look forward to a regime of ever-higher house prices, declining opportunities for ownership and, like young people in East Asia, an environment hostile to family formation. All for a policy that, for all its progressive allure, will make more Americans more unhappy, less familial, and likely poorer.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.