Let's Not Fool Ourselves on Urban Growth

There has been a lot written lately about the return to the city. I’ve noted myself how places like central Indianapolis have reversed decades of population declines. That’s exciting. And the New York Times, for example, just trumpeted how “smart growth is taking hold” in America.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. In my view this represents a possible inflection point, but it is way too early for the type of triumphalist rhetoric being bandied about by advocates.

Let’s take a look at the change in the regional population share in core counties in 2009 vs. 2008 for the Midwest cities I typically focus on.

City  Core County Share Change   2009 Core County Share   2008 Core County Share 
Columbus 0.02% 63.83% 63.81%
Pittsburgh 0.02% 51.74% 51.72%
Milwaukee (0.01%) 61.52% 61.53%
Minneapolis-St. Paul (0.02%) 50.84% 50.86%
Chicago (0.06%) 55.19% 55.24%
Louisville (0.07%) 57.33% 57.41%
Kansas City (0.11%) 34.13% 34.25%
Cincinnati (0.17%) 39.37% 39.54%
St. Louis (0.18%) 47.68% 47.86%
Indianapolis (0.23%) 51.09% 51.32%
Cleveland (0.26%) 61.00% 61.26%
Detroit (0.32%) 43.47% 44.06%

For St. Louis, I use St. Louis city + St. Louis County as the core. For Minneapolis-St. Paul, I used Hennepin+Ramsey as the core.

As you can see, only two regions managed to increase core county share of population, and these by a minuscule amount. Everyone else lost core county share. Keep in mind that even these “core” counties have many places with suburban characteristics. Now you might prefer a purely core city measure, and if so, be my guest. But don’t be surprised if the data gets even worse in many cases. Even in Chicago, which might have experienced the biggest urban core construction boom in America, the city lost population while Cook County gained it. Looking at the core city would make Chicago’s share loss worse.

I think this shows there is still some work to do, to put it mildly.

So why the difference versus the EPA study the NYT trumpets? Well, for one thing, the EPA study is worthless as a measure of urban health. They measure only new building permits, not people. This I think taps into a subtle suburban mindset in our outlook, that new housing units must represent net new inventory and net new people moving in, but in urban areas that’s not necessarily the case.

The sad fact is, many of our urban cores have experienced significant housing abandonment and demolition. So in addition to construction of net new units, there’s a countervailing force of reduction. For example, the greater downtown area of Indianapolis has been seeing lots of construction. But the regional center comprehensive plan noted that between 1990 and 2000, the net number of dwelling units actually decreased. “The actual number of housing units declined over the 10-year period as some housing became dilapidated or was demolished and as some projects were emptied to await renovation (the Census only counts habitable units).”

What’s more, as yuppies move in, and others move out, there is bound to be an effect on household sizes. Is it is really a good idea to price out larger immigrant families to the inner ring suburbs so that DINK’s can move in? How’s that for the environmental footprint of the region?

I’m glad we’ve got big increases in urban construction and even population increases in some neighborhoods, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves by trumpeting a “fundamental shift”, as the EPA does, when the demographics don’t back it up.

The New York Times article is also a disappointment. It fails to do any independent analysis of the data and only talks to people who are cheerleaders for the study, making it a sad piece of journalism.

Someone recently described me as an “apologist for sprawl”. I in no uncertain terms reject that label. I am a passionate urban advocate who wants to see our core cities thrive and prosper. I want more growth there. I live in a city in a walkable neighborhood and rarely drive.

But advocacy research of the type urbanists are quick to decry in others does a disservice to the cause. To change the trajectory of our cities and our built environment in America, we need to start with something called “reality”. I am optimistic that there’s a change in the air. But let’s not make claims about “fundamental shifts” that are simply not supported by any realistic look at the totality of the data.

This post first appeared at The Urbanophile.

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Henn + Ramsey

@Aaron, do you know how Minneapolis and St. Paul looked on their own? Ramsey and Hennipen counties are different beasts. Ramsey county more or less filled up a decade or two ago. So comparing core city growth to either of them may not tell us much other than in terms of how the core city is growing versus old inner ring suburbs.

Hennipen county on the other hand is very large and still has plenty of room for growth. Yes, it has the Hopkins, Edina and Richfields which are old inner ring suburbs. But some of the highest gains in population in the metro can still be found in cities in Hennepin County.

Either way, it's interesting to put these in perspective. I think part of the problem is that those 14 story condo projects are very visible. For example, most everyone has witnessed the boom of condos in the area of the old stockyards while driving by on I25. But no one seems to realize despite all the hoopla over downtown residential growth, Brighton alone added more population in the last 3 years than downtown Denver has added in the last 12.

2009 data for incorporated

2009 data for incorporated places is not available yet, but in 2007 Minneapolis was 11.85% of metro area population and in 2008 it was 11.82%, a very small loss of share.

St. Paul had 8.70% of regional share in 2007, and only 8.63% in 2008, so it also lost share.

Population Estimates are not a Valid Indicator

First of all, I suspct the 2008 and 2009 population numbers are estimates based on past trends not actually numbers so comparing them means absolutely nothing. Secondly, in the middle of an economic crisis, not much was being built so what happened between these two years really doesn't indicate much. While using the building permits may not be the best measure, it is likely much better than the estimated population numbers that you are using.

hey, wait a minute!

By focusing on a core's "share" this post completely overlooks the difference between two situations:

1. Healthy city, healthy suburbs- Where the city is growing but not quite as fast as its suburbs. In such a situation the city is still gaining, even if its "core" is declining.

2. Unhealthy city- Where the city is still declining.

Thus, the use of arguments about a city's "share" to suggest that the city is declining is kind of misleading.

I'm not arguing that all

I'm not arguing that all cities are declining. Actually, many of them are starting to see upticks again. Indy's core is growing again after 55 years of decline. I'm simply saying that in most places there is no evidence of the "fundamental shift" from suburban to urban living that the EPA and others have suggested.

urban "growth"

The reality of today's urban home buyers are:
They are a niche buyer.
That's it, they are NOT in any way, the mainstream home buyer in the US. Not by a long shot. They never will be either.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. They tend to have higher incomes (or don't have the expense of children), and don't require a lot of city "services". They are willing to pay the high costs of living there. And that's fine, because this is a free country and you should be free to do so. And the cities frankly need the money.

However there just not very many of them and there never will be. Most people don't have the income to throw it away on high costs when they don't have too.

The mainstream home buyer is still (and will be so for a long time) a middle class family. Today's cities really don't try at all to be a place this type of buyer can buy into. Some seem to go out of their way to drive these buyers away.

Schools stink, the houses are not the right type for today's families, (families aren't going to buy a one bedroom condo, and not everybody itching to rehab an old house), its too expensive, the list goes on on why this very large segment of buyers do not consider the city a place they can be. Even if they like the idea of urban life.

It took cities decades to find today's urban buyers, it's hardly a flood of people. Its too small a group to make that much of an impact overall. These buyers do allow the cities to continue their bad habits, and the cities will still go broke in the long run.

Until cities really get serious about schools and containing the high costs of urban living, the middle class family will live outside the city. And they will continue to leave in higher numbers then the new residents moving in.

Good Article, Aaron

Newspapers always prefer to hype trends than dig into easily available data, so their demise is not unwelcome. Good job calling out the Times for what really was a silly article.

But I also don't know that core county population growth means much. KC, StL, and Cincy are low because they're on state lines. And here in DC, Washington is now gaining population, homicide rates in the city are down nearly 80% from the early 90s peak, and metro accessible, close-in Arlington County grew 4% last year. But at the same time outer suburban Loudoun and Prince William grew at similar 3-4% rates.

What's happening is a reflection of what Joel Kotkin described in his recent article on Texas. It's not either/or, but AND. What's unfolding is much greater freedom of choice between city and suburb that did not exist 30 years ago. This is what America is supposed to be about, you can choose to live someplace Wendell Cox would love, or one that James Kunstler would fawn over, and in the future I wouldn't be surprised if the types of living options expanded further.

I'm all in favor of

I'm all in favor of diversity. We're a very diverse nation and need diverse types of cities.

There aren't enough Yuppies

As I once read, there aren't enough Yuppies to save Detroit. Cities attract a fairly well defined demographic, the young, the poor and the very well off.

Over the past few years we created more young (echo boomers and postponed marriages) and very well off (two income professionals).

Cities' future will depend on future growth of these demographics. Otherwise the trend is more to areas with fairly low cost to create families.