How Can We Be So Dense? Anti-Sprawl Policies Threaten America's Future


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 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.

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Physical determinism, the confusion of form and process

2. "Dense cities foster innovation and create value"

In so far as planners interpret this to mean that we should mandate density and higher value urban economies will result, this is the "physical determinism" fallacy. I like "cargo cult fallacy" as an even more cutting critical term.

The denseness and the higher value are BOTH ENDOGENOUS to the same PROCESS, WHEN they are the result of free market processes.

MANDATED higher density, of which the UK's cities are the classic example, produces stagnant and unproductive local economies at least 90% of the time.

how do the blind, disabled, poor, young fit into suburban living

Are free cars provided by the government? Free or subsidized taxis in sufficient supply to provide ready transport 24 by 7?

Or are these people confined to dense urban ghettos?


How can a minimum wage job support suburban living? Its bad enough in an dense urban area with small rental units, but at least its possible to get around in some urban districts without a car.

In my experience, suburban communities do not provide any way to shop or work or engage the community without driving. And providing even Federally subsidized transit for the disabled and elderly is extremely difficult because of the high cost to reach all the far flung people in need to transport to stores, doctors, and other services.

And what about kids. I live in a suburban NH community and see the big yellow bus go by several times a day dropping off one or two kids here and there. In the 25 years I have lived in the community, I have seen kids come and go, but seldom have I seen kids playing together because the family with the young kids is two houses down from the sixth graders who are three houses down from the teens who are next to the young adults stuck at home because they can't afford to live independently while in college. The neighborhood has been of families, but it is the supposedly low density suburban community of multiple generations of families without any critical mass of children cohorts. Lots of families, with kids, but the kids don't play in the neighborhood - that;s what the parents with cars and the school buses are needed for. The IRS puts the cost of reliable car transport at about $5000 a year per car (55 cents for 200 per week - the average mileage for a car in the US).

It ain't American free-market evolving cities that hurt the poor

".....How can a minimum wage job support suburban living?...."

How can a minimum wage job support urban living in a classic gentrified setting, which incidentally is the inevitable trend? Plus a disproportionate number of centrally located jobs are increasingly for highly qualified people.

Are we now to believe that urban slums and inner city sweatshops were great after all?

Actually, another inevitability of urban evolution, IF ALLOWED TO OCCUR, is the amazing affordability of depreciated housing in more mature suburbs. Lower income people who live in growth-controlled cities all around the first world can only drool in deprived frustration at the prices of such housing in US cities, even faster growing ones like Houston. Literally, a 50 year old family home that you could get for $60,000 in Houston, would not be less than $500,000 in Coventry, UK; Vancouver, Canada; Melbourne, Australia; or any similarly growth controlled city.

And in the growth controlled cities, there is NOT an "affordable" HIGH density living option EITHER, for lower income people. Rents for the pokiest and shittiest little apartments are literally more expensive than what you can get the family home for in Houston. You bleeding heart activists for "the poor" need to stop grizzling about AMERICA and "get it" about how dam well the free market there DOES provide for low income people.

But there is more. There are far MORE options of affordable housing NEAR low income workers JOBS, in a city like Houston, allowing a car-free lifestyle based on walking or cycling. In a city where NOTHING ANYWHERE is affordable, you can't even START to make a comparison. The reality in these cities, is that lower income people suffer from a severe "pricing out" effect, so that disproportionate numbers of them can afford neither a home near a job OR the cost of transport to get to where the jobs are. And of course mass transit only ever provides access to a fraction of the jobs that a car does.


Wow, do you feel better now? The amount of vitriol on this website never ceases to astound me. Sure there may be more people who own a car than don't own a car, but what about those people who DO NOT HAVE A CAR? Are they invisible to you? Their experience and/or existence meaningless? I'm one of the car-less. I've been searching for a better paying job for well over a year but until that time, I cannot afford to buy a new car. Also, my dad is experiencing dementia and is not supposed to drive, but since there are ZERO public transportation options in their car-oriented suburbia development he winds up stealing car keys from family members and goes off on joyrides. Simply because he is sick of being confined to his stale, suburban home with no options for even a nice walk since the development "planners" didn't even consider their pedestrian experience. His quality of life? VERY low. If he lived in the heart of a city or if mass transit was an option, he might actually still HAVE quality of life. But of course, experiences like these don't count to you and is just more "bleeding heart" stuff, right? It is becoming pointless to even read this blog due to the divisive and judgmental views expressed.

Converntional Wisdom of Experts

Just thought I would relate a personal experience to this discussion on the poor and public transportation. As a real estate developer, I was volunteering my time to a local non-profit that was seeking to build a project, retail in nature, that would result in small business enterprise formation and therefore newly created jobs targeted to a minority community (both business owners and customers). There was a discussion about potential sites and the very white, well educated with planning degree people that were involved in this were being dismissive of parking and suggesting the project be located next to a transit stop (creating the least flexibility for customers if you consider points of origin). This was the conventional planning wisdom, transit-oriented development, etc.

A young, minority small business owner raised his hand and made the point that his ethnic community, family, circle of friends, etc. look at the need to use public transportation as a stigma, not a preferred way of life and that the freedom, flexibility and significant benefits derived from using a car and not spending time on public transit were much more highly desired by the poor.

Eye opener to me and a good reminder that when having these policy debates, we should sometimes step back and rethink he conventional wisdom of well intentioned experts. It is often wrong and out of touch.

The welfare offices and the carparks - a 1st-hand anecdote

I can supply a revealing anecdote too. Up to a few years ago, welfare payments were dispensed in some cities by an actual agency with branches that the welfare recipients physically visited to collect their payouts. The day was always the same one every week.

And it was common knowledge among local businesses and shoppers, to avoid trying to visit those general locations on that day of the week, because all the carparks would be taken by old banger cars.....!

The reality is that old banger cars have been so cheap for so long now, and have got more reliable as time goes on, that the vast majority of poor people, even welfare beneficiaries, tend to own or have access to one among their family or friends. The "non car owning poor" are now so few in number that running big transit vehicles around a few fixed routes to "provide mobility", is really nearly meaningless.

Dense cities are great if...

you have a lot of money and can afford the lifestyle they provide, as well as top-end private schools for your kids. Otherwise, they aren't pleasant places to be. In addition, dense cities feature school districts and other city services run by union-powered political machines, high taxes, etc. Little wonder anyone who isn't a hedge-fund type gets out of Dodge quickly - or simply never shows up to begin with.

Dense Construction Creates Population Exodus

An excellent example of density driving people away from a city is Hollywood CA. After the Hollywood subway began operation and the corrupt city build crowded CRA project, Hollywood lost thousands of people between 2000 and 2010 and the population loss came from the census tracts contiguous to the subways stations where the mixed-use projects were located. The population far away from the subway stations rose slightly.

When the developers lose hundreds of millions of dollars, the tax payer then picks up the tab. Not only did they build with tax payer dollars, but the city often guaranteed the loans from Goldman Sachs etc. Thus, when the developer's LLC or LLP collapses, the city has to pay off the loan.

Mayor Garcetti calls this phenomenon "revitalization." Actually it is more like money laundering where the mayor gives billions of dollars to his buddies by having the city pay off their loans after the developer has pocketed the loan proceeds.

Cui Bono?

You are correct, and the situation is actually even worse than that. I have concluded that the driver of all this urban planning nonsense is in fact vested interests, primarily the owners of centrally located property, which of course is of the highest value and therefore worth the most rent-seeking effort.

Firstly, the whole argument around vested interests has been fraudulently framed around the "vested interests" in "sprawl". I constantly try to point out to people that the "vested interests" in growth containment planning are orders of magnitude greater than the vested interests in "sprawl"; and even worse, the former make massive unearned capital gains as a zero sum wealth transfer from everyone else, while at least those who benefit from "sprawl" are honestly supplying goods and services and building things and providing jobs; in response to legitimate demand.

And in fact the benefits to society and the economy are massive, in the minimisation of economic "rent" (in contrast to the maximisation of them by growth containment planning). The only losers are the primary recipients of the economic rent that is reduced. But this rent is of such magnitude that it is unnecessary for there to be a conspiracy among a number of owners of centrally located properties - the portfolio of just one significant owner is often large enough to justify millions of dollars worth of lobbying and advocacy support. No similar efforts will be found on the part of the "pro sprawl" interests. What are Joel Kotkin, Wendell Cox, Randal O'Toole and the "Reason" people, in comparison to the Goliath "smart growth" advocacy industry?

Secondly, it is not that local government stops at imposing growth boundaries and "transit oriented" zoning that delivers fat quasi-monopoly capital gains to big property owners (and to all existing home owners, unfortunately creating a large constituency in favour of the status quo). As you point out, there are frequently public subsidies as well, on the occasion of redevelopment that actually enriches the property owners enough in its own right even without public subsidies being thrown in. These troughers have perfected their gaming to a fine art to extract economic rent out of every orifice of the local economy and its taxpayers.

Thirdly, it is an economic inevitability that the central part of an urban region will lose certain types of economic activity - the ones that operate more efficiently with larger amounts of land at lower cost. Eg manufacturing, warehousing, big box retailing. The rent-seeking property owners at the centre always look for publicly-supported amenities that will prop up economic activity at the location; eg sports stadiums, convention centres. Nobody makes a cause out of the fact that the public are heavy losers in this or that there is every reason that these amenities should be in suburban locations (lower land cost, less congestion).

Fourthly, the fact that "transport planning" has for decades been heavily monocentric and radial, is a significant cause of perpetuating the primacy of a single regional "CBD" and whatever else is located there. In fact most cities most of the time will be more productive with a dispersed form, and a transport infrastructure network to support it. Eg "grid" pattern road and parkway networks, jitney type public transport. There are numerous beneficial effects from an urban form which has been enabled to "disperse" just as fast as market forces drive it anyway. Resisting these market forces does far more harm than good.