Cities: Better for the Great Suburbanization


Where Cities Grow: The Suburbs

The massive exodus of people from rural areas to urban areas over the past 200 years has been called the "great urbanization." For more than two centuries, people have been leaving rural areas to live in cities (urban areas). The principal incentive has been economic. But most of this growth has not taken place close to city centers, but rather on or beyond the urban fringe in the suburbs (and exurbs). Appropriately, The Economist magazine refers to the urbanization trend as the "great suburbanization," in its December 6, 2014 issue (PLACES APART: The world is becoming ever more suburban, and the better for it).

The preponderance of suburban growth is evident in high income world metropolitan areas. For decades, nearly all growth in nearly all cities has been in the suburbs. Some notable examples are London, Toronto, San Francisco, Portland, Tokyo, Zürich, and Seoul. The dominance of suburban growth is also evident in the major cities of the less developed world, from Sao Paulo and Mexico City, to Cairo, Manila, Jakarta, Beijing, and Kolkata (see the Evolving Urban Form series). The Economist describes the substantial spatial expansion of residences and jobs in Chennai (formerly Madras), a soon-to-be megacity in India.

Growing Cities Become Less Dense

The Economist quotes New York University geographer Shlomo Angel, whose groundbreaking work (such as in Planet of Cities) indicates that "almost every city is becoming  less dense." Angel also shows that, contrary to the popular perception of increasing densities, cities become less dense as they add more population. This extends even to the lowest income cities, such as Addis Abeba (Ethiopia), where the population has increased more than 250 percent since the middle 1970s, while the urban population density has declined more than 70 percent. The rapidly growing cities of China exhibit the same tendency, where, according to The Economist: "Mr. Angel finds that population densities tend to drop when Chinese cities knock down cheaply built walk-up apartments and replace them with high towers."

Suburbs in the United States

In the United States, The Economist says that more than half of Americans live in suburbs. In fact, this is an understatement, owing to the common error of classifying "principal cities" as urban core, when many are, in fact, suburban. The Office of Management and Budget established the "principal cities" designation to replace the former "central city" versus suburb classification. This was in recognition of the fact that employment patterns in US metropolitan areas had become polycentric, with suburban employment centers, which along with central cities were designated as "principal cities."

The absurdity of using "principal cities" as a synonym for central cities is illustrated by the broad expanses of post-1950 suburbanization now classified, with genuine core cities like New York or Chicago, as principal cities such like Lakewood, New Jersey (New York metropolitan area), Hoffman Estates (Chicago), Mesa (Phoenix), Arlington (Dallas-Fort Worth), Reston (Washington) and Hillsboro (Portland). In fact more than 85 percent of major metropolitan area (over 1 million population) residents live areas that are functionally suburban or exurban according to our small area analysis ("City Sector Model").

Urban core growth rates have improved since 2010, which is an encouraging sign. Yet, core city jurisdictions account for less than 30 percent of metropolitan area growth, as Richard Morrill has shown. The Economist points out factors that could prevent this long overdue improvement from being sustained in the future.

  • Schools are "still often dire in the middles of cities," according to The Economist. Any hope of keeping most young families as they raise children seems impossible until core cities take on the politically challenging task of school reform.
  • The Economist also notes the huge government employee pension obligations of some large core cities, suggesting the necessity of cutting services or raising taxes. "Both answers were likely to drive residents to nearby suburbs, making the problem worse. No number of trams, coffee shops or urban hipsters will save cities that slip into this whirlpool." The Economist specifically cites Chicago and New York, but could have added many more examples both in this country and outside.

Limiting Sprawl and Limiting Opportunity

The Economist is refreshingly direct in its characterization of attempts to stop urban spatial expansion ("urban sprawl"). "Suburbs rarely cease growing of their own accord. The only reliable way to stop them, it turns out, is to stop them forcefully. But the consequences of doing that are severe."  The Economist: chronicles the experience of London, with its "greenbelt" ("urban growth boundary"): "Because of the green belt London has almost no modern suburban houses and very high property prices."

The social consequences have been massive. "The freezing of London’s suburbs has probably aided the revival of inner-London neighbourhoods like Brixton. It has also forced many people into undignified homes, widened the wealth gap between property owners and everyone else, and enriched rentiers." Housing is typically the largest share of household expenditures and raising its price reduces discretionary incomes, while increasing poverty. In London, The Economist says that "To provide desperately needed cheap housing, garages and sheds there are being converted into tiny houses," quoting historian John Hickman who calls them “shanty towns”.

Higher house prices and lower discretionary incomes are not limited to London. Among the 85 major metropolitan areas covered in the 10th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, all 24 of those with "severely unaffordable" housing have London-style land-use regulation or similar land use restrictions. These financial reverses are not limited to suburban households, since urban containment policies are associated with substantial house price increases in urban cores as much as in suburbs.

"Doom Mongering" About the Suburbs

Oblivious to this revealed preference for residential and often commercial suburban location, many retro – urbanists, including many well placed, have viewed the suburbs with "concern and disdain," according to The Economist. Since the Great Financial Crisis, The Economist notes that this has turned to "doom-mongering."

The Economist summarily dismisses suburban doom doctrine: "Those who argue that suburbia is dying are wrong on the facts; those who say it is doomed by the superiority of higher-density life make a far from convincing case."

The Future

In the editorial leader, The Economist, suggests: A wiser policy would be to plan for huge expansion. Acquire strips of land for roads and railways, and chunks for parks, before the city sprawls into them.

The Economist adds: This is not the dirigisme (government planning) of the new-town planner—that confident soul who believes he knows where people will want to live and work, and how they will get from one to the other. It is the realism needed to manage the inevitable.

The Economist continues that the suburbs have worked well in the West and are spreading, concluding that: We should all look forward to the time when Chinese and Indian teenagers write sulky songs about the appalling dullness of suburbia.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photo: Suburban Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), by author

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Planetizen not so impressed

Michael Lewyn at Planetizen has criticised The Economist, unconvincingly in my opinion:

I posted my own mini-essay in response: