Is Suburbia Doomed? Not So Fast.


This past weekend the New York Times devoted two big op-eds to the decline of the suburb. In one, new urban theorist Chris Leinberger said that Americans were increasingly abandoning “fringe suburbs” for dense, transit-oriented urban areas. In the other, UC Berkeley professor Louise Mozingo called for the demise of the “suburban office building” and the adoption of policies that will drive jobs away from the fringe and back to the urban core.

Perhaps no theology more grips the nation’s mainstream media — and the planning community — more than the notion of inevitable suburban decline. The Obama administration’s housing secretary, Shaun Donavan, recently claimed, “We’ve reached the limits of suburban development: People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities.”

Yet repeating a mantra incessantly does not make it true. Indeed, any analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census would make perfectly clear that rather than heading for density, Americans are voting with their feet in the opposite direction: toward the outer sections of the metropolis and to smaller, less dense cities. During the 2000s, the Census shows, just 8.6% of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs. That 8.6% represents a decline from the 1990s, when the figure was 15.4%.

Nor are Americans abandoning their basic attraction for single-family dwellings or automobile commuting. Over the past decade, single-family houses grew far more than either multifamily or attached homes, accounting for nearly 80% of all the new households in the 51 largest cities. And — contrary to the image of suburban desolation — detached housing retains a significantly lower vacancy rate than the multi-unit sector, which has also suffered a higher growth in vacancies even the crash.

Similarly, notes demographer Wendell Cox, despite a 45% boost in gas prices, the country gained almost 8 million lone auto commuters in the past 10 years. Transit ridership, while up slightly, is still stuck at the 1990 figure of 5%, while the number of home commuters grew roughly six times as quickly.

In the past decade, suburbia extended its reach, even around the greatest, densest and most celebrated cities. New York grew faster than most older cities, with 29% of its growth taking place in five boroughs, but that’s still a lot lower than the 46% of growth they accounted for in the 1990s. In Chicago, the suburban trend was even greater. The outer suburbs and exurbs gained over a half million people while the inner suburbs stagnated and the urban core, the Windy City, lost some 200, 000 people.

Rather than flee to density, the Census showed a population shift from more dense to less dense places. The top ten population gainers among metropolitan areas — growing by 20%, twice the national average, or more — are the low-density Las Vegas, Raleigh, Austin, Charlotte, Riverside–San Bernardino, Orlando, Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio and Atlanta. By contrast, many of the densest metropolitan areas — including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and New York — grew at rates half the national average or less.

It turns out that while urban land owners, planners and pundits love density, people for the most part continue to prefer space, if they can afford it. No amount of spinmeistering can change that basic fact, at least according to trends of past decade.

But what about the future? Some more reasoned new urbanists, like Leinberger, hope that the market will change the dynamic and spur the long-awaited shift into dense, more urban cores.

Density fans point to the very real high foreclosure rates in some peripheral communities such as those that surround Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Yet these areas also have been hard-hit by recession — in large part they consist of aspiring, working class people who bought late in the cycle. Yet, after every recession in the past, often after being written off for dead, areas like Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., have tended to recover with the economy.

Less friendly to the meme of density’s manifest destiny has been a simultaneous meltdown in the urban condo market. Massive reductions in condo prices of as much as 50% or more have particularly hurt the areas around Miami, Portland, Chicago and Atlanta. There are open holes, empty storefronts, and abandoned projects in downtowns across the country that, if laid flat, would appear as desperate as the foreclosure ravaged fringe areas.

In many other cases, the prices never dropped because the owners gave up selling condos and started renting them, often to a far lower demographic (such as students) than the much anticipated “down-shifting” boomers. Contrary to one of the most oft-cited urban legends by Leinberger and his cohorts, demographics do not necessarily favor density. Most empty-nesters and retirees, notes former Del Webb Vice President of Development Peter Verdoon, prefer not just outer suburbs but increasingly “small towns and rural areas” Dense cities, he notes, are a relatively rare choice for those seeking a new locale for their golden years.

Verdoon’s assertion is borne out by our own analysis of the 2010 Census. Generally speaking, aging boomers tended to move out of dense urban cores, and to a lesser extent, even the suburbs. If they moved anywhere, they were headed further out in metropolis towards the more rural area. Among cities the biggest beneficiaries have been low-density cities in the Southwest and southern locales such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Austin.

What about the other big demographic, the millennials? Like previous generations of urbanists, the current crop mistake a totally understandable interest in cities among post-adolescents. Yet when the research firm Frank Magid asked millennials what made up their “ideal” locale, a strong plurality opted for suburbs — far more than was the case in earlier generations.

Generational analysts Morley Winograd and Mike Hais note that older millennials — those now entering their 30s — are as interested in homeownership as previous generations. This works strongly in favor of suburbs since they tend to be more affordable and, for the most part, offer safer streets, better parks and schools.

In the short run, suburbia’s future, like that of much of real estate market, depends on the economy. But even here trends may be different than the density lobby suggests. As housing prices fall, the much ballyhooed trend toward a “rentership” society may weaken. Already in many markets such as Atlanta, Las Vegas and Minneapolis and Phoenix it is cheaper to own than rent, something that favors lower-density suburban neighborhoods.

Longer term, of course, suburbs, even on the fringe, will change as growth restarts. Cities here and around the world tend to expand outward, and over time the definition of the fringe changes. To be sure, some fringe communities, particularly in highly regulated and economically regressive areas, could indeed disappear; but many others, particularly in the faster growing parts of the country, will reboot themselves.

They will become, as the inner suburbs already have, more diverse with many working at home or taking shorter trips to their place of work They will become less bedrooms of the core city but more self-contained and “village like,” with shopping streets and cultural amenities near what will still be a landscape dominated primarily by single-family houses.

In fact the media reports about the “death” of fringe suburbs seem to be more a matter of wishful thinking than fact. If the new urbanists want to do something useful, they might apply themselves by helping these peripheral places of aspiration evolve successfully. That’s far more constructive than endlessly insisting on — or trying to legislate — their inevitable demise.

This piece first appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

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People prefer space

"It turns out that while urban land owners, planners and pundits love density, people for the most part continue to prefer space, if they can afford it. No amount of spinmeistering can change that basic fact, at least according to trends of past decade."

Unless those who desire space actually maximize that space by farming or playing outside, which is being done less and less in America, I feel these people will be trapped by having obese children who only know what the inside of an automobile looks like and aren't able to safely walk or bike to the corner store, school or work.

Ray Atkinson
Geography Student, UNC Charlotte

Suburbs are doing just fine.

As a realtor near Chicago (NW Indiana), I would note that the population loss is far more then CHA residents (few moved here as welfare is more "generous" in Illinois). The middle and upper middle class (of ALL races) are still leaving in large numbers. They are generally families, so in order to replace them, you need 4-5 new yuppies per family. Yes, downtown Chicago is better then ever, but many south and west side neighborhood are almost vacant. Until public schools somehow improve themselves (very unlikely anytime soon) the suburbs have little competition from the city.

If people are looking for a lower cost lifestyle, the far suburbs are the best choice. The city is hardly inexpensive. Really expensive if you add private school. Plus, in the Chicago area, most of the jobs are now in the suburbs, so the city doesn't offer a short commute.

The census shows that the majority of the growth goes to the far suburbs. That isn't going to change anytime soon.

In spite of the low economy, most builders in my area are building and selling new houses, mostly in the far suburbs. The biggest builder never stopped building and selling even during the worst time a few years ago.

I don't get the hate aimed at the suburbs either. It seems counter productive as people in the suburbs aren't advocating banning cities, like many city people would like to do to the suburbs. Why would you force people to live where they didn't want to be? Plus it would make affordability a huge problem as you limit supply. I think in an area like Chicago if you stopped the growth in the suburbs, it wouldn't "return" to the city, it would not come at all. It would go to other places like Texas.

Prices are the best indicator ...

And prices are still falling in many locations. Until prices in all sectors of the housing market stabilize, one can draw only limited conclusions on current trends. It remains to be seen whether or not the glut of suburban single-family housing stock will retain any value whatsoever. Just as it took a few years for the financial industry to realize the value of a CDO derived from subprime mortgage-backed securities (less than worthless), it may take a few years for housing prices to reset and for analysts and the market to determine what this residential stock is worth. That being said, it's interesting to see the early trends in housing price recovery.

For instance, in Mark A. Calabria's (Director of Financial Regulation Studies at the Cato Institute) testimony before the House in Oct 2001, he states: "In general, prices in central cities and urban cores, have witnessed only minor declines or actual increases over the last year. According to the California Association of Realtors, overall state prices are down just 2% from January 2010 to January 2011. Yet prices in the inland commuting counties – Mariposa (-27%), San Benito (-14%), Butte (-29%), Kings (-16%), Tulare (-16%) – are witnessing the largest declines".

This is not "wishful thinking" that the fringe suburbs are on the ropes. At some point these forces achieve a critical mass which triggers a negative, self-reinforcing feedback loop similar to the process of de-industrialization in the Rust Belt. As housing prices fall, so goes municipal budgets, financing for required infrastructure improvements and money for schools.

On the recovery side, Kaid Benfield cites research by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis which highlights a similar phenomenon in D.C. A map from the article graphically depicts how prices in the central city have recovered more quickly than on the periphery.

The use of actual housing prices to determine the fate of suburbia is far more suitable than polls and surveys. What respondents claim on a questionnaire and actually do in the real world can be quite different. Furthermore, the polls for housing preferences are typically split. For every one that indicates consumers prefer suburban locations, a different survey shows more people are in the market for urban dwellings.

In addition, there are serious flaws in using demographic data to support the notion that "people vote with their feet". As noted in a previous comment, drawing attention to the fact that Chicago proper lost 200k residents loses sight of the fact that dozens of CHA complexes have been demolished in the past decade. Cabrini Green housed 15,000 residents at its peak, with perhaps 5,000 at the dawn of the aughts. These circumstances do not represent Chicago residents "voting" by moving out of the city but rather displacement due to new housing policies.

Again, since the market has not bottomed out, we will have to wait and see. How quickly that happens will depend on a number of factors, from the economy to market interventions, and then when prices stabilize we should have a clear picture of what's in store for suburbia.

You're calling these suburbs?

"Yet prices in the inland commuting counties – Mariposa (-27%), San Benito (-14%), Butte (-29%), Kings (-16%), Tulare (-16%)"

San Benito is arguably a suburban county, but calling the rest of the counties on that list "fringe suburbs" is like calling South Dakota a "fringe suburb" of Minneapolis. Believe it or not, there are rural areas in California.

Also, I'm not sure DC is representative of the country as a whole. Most of the main business there is concentrated in the center of the anchor city, and has, for better or worse, experienced explosive growth in the last few years.

Good to know

J1: Keep in mind I was quoting Dr. Calabria from Cato who described them as "inland commuting counties". I didn't pull up Google Earth to check out the locations; I just took the Doc's word for it that they are on the fringe. Perhaps Cato used a kind of "functional" model for the metro region in the study which, in my experience, extends a central city's hinterland farther than you would think.

As you wrote, "for better or worse" D.C. is a truly a different class of animal. However, I wouldn't be surprised if other cities with a cluster of governmental and educational functions faired better than others in the aftermath of the recession. From what I've read, places like Madison, WI and Austin, TX have weathered the storm better than most. But just to reiterate, my point was that it appears the value, in terms of prices, of housing is returning more quickly to the core than on the edge. Again, the reset has not run its course, but these early price indicators do not bode well for many outlying areas.

More Anti-Suburb Nonsense

I've never understood the hostility urban living fans have towards the burbs. I live in an "outer ring" suburb roughly 40 miles from the center of the anchor city. I know my neighbors far better and am friends with a lot more of them than I ever was when I lived in the city. I don't know anybody who commutes more than 10 miles to work. We have a lot more community events, with a much higher level of participation than I ever saw when I lived in an urban apartment. And with respect to at least one comment I frequently hear from suburb haters, the two cities I'm most familiar with are my anchor city and Manhattan. The suburban area I live in has no more, and arguably less racial/ethnic segregation than either of those places (Manhattan in particular makes any pre-civil rights era southern city look like a model of de-segregation), so don't throw the diversity crap at me either.

That's before we get to the lower crime, better roads, commercial development and general public/commercial area maintenance and, finally, exponentially better schools (despite much lower per student spending).

I bear no animosity towards people who want to live in the city - there are urban areas I'd love to live in - but most of the criticisms I hear of suburbs demonstrate little more than that the person doing the criticizing doesn't know what the hell they're talking about.

Do Your Research...

"Americans are voting with their feet in the opposite direction"

These are the same people who continue to buy F-150 trucks even though fuel prices are climbing.

Like everything in life, it is affordable until it isn't and then they wonder why they can not sell their home.

Furthermore, Chicago lost 200k people due to the fact that the Housing Authority significantly scaled back public housing in the city. It has nothing to due with housing trends. If you want to educate yourself about the appeal of downtown living in Chicago, you might want to review the rental demand in the city in addition to the plethora of new construction.

Using the Census data as an indicator for housing trends is dangerous in this particular situation due to the highly distorted home purchasing environment over the past 10 years.

This article as a rebuttal of the NYT-OpEd/WSJ is spurious at best.

Suburbia and Noise

One of the major factors driving people out into the suburbs, or to low density semi-rural envirnments is the advent of low cost high powered electronics. (Especially with base boom)

We finally abandoned our urban townhouse because we could not tolerate the neighbours on both sides who would position their speakers outside on the deck and bombard us with their different preferences in music.

It may be that iPods with ear plugs have made this less fashionable but generally noise begets noise.
My country neighbours have quiet motor cars. Over on the suburban side the boy racers charge around at night. The ride-on mowers may drone on (my wife is driving ours now) but that is a soothing noise. Also such "productive noise" is never as loud as the noise broadcast by territorial colonisers. Otherwise we would not put up with the chooks.

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.

The future will be very very different due to driverless autos

Any assumptions we have about the future of cities need to be tested against the almost certain reality of the 21st century- driverless autos. The advent of driverless cars will completely change the landscape.

Dwellings won't need on or near premises parking. Neither will shops and offices. Cars will be summoned from wherever whenever needed. Pick up and drop off areas will need expansion.

Passenger railroads of all types will be even more obsolete than they are now. Short haul airline trips will largely be replaced by overnight or less driverless car trips, while the occupants sleep.

Neighborhood schools are much less essential when a driverless auto can take the kids to the school that is most suitable, even if it is an hour away, since they can study on the trip.

Car repair places could be large facilities on the edge of town, since the cars will largely drive themselves to and from.

In short, the era of the driverless car could have as profound an effect on our geography as the introduction of the car itself.

Driverless autos?

Maybe in your sci-fi fantasy. I know it's being worked on, and there's stuff like Pods, but I don't see it being the norm in the near future.

Most people that live in the suburbs to begin with want to own a car, and have it near them. Do you really want to have to wait for a car to come and get you? Or plan your schedule so tight you are ready to leave when the car comes by at 2PM. Cars have that one advantage.

Passenger railroads will not be obsolete. Capacity and efficiency wise, it would seem that passenger railroads would win. Trains get the right of way, cars sit in traffic or they'll move slowly to accomodate the other cars on the road.

We have public transit for kids to take to school or magnet schools, and most neighborhood schools should be satisfactory enough that kids don't need to resort to another school. Kids can study on the bus...

So if cars break down in the middle of town, you're out of luck? Again, if you live in the middle of town, you're going to have to wait a good bit? I'd also like to see who is working on my cars, etc.

Driverless cars sound like a dumb dream, almost as bad as flying cars. People want control and convience with their cars, not some dumb rigamorale.