The so-called myth that cities are growing when suburbs are still growing more
The other day, the New York Times ran a story, "Return to Cities an Urban Legend, Mostly," making the point that despite all the talk of population growth in the cities, more people are moving to and more growth is happening "in the suburbs."
I think this story misses very important points, a kind of "burying the lede."
Suburbs make up a much greater proportion of a metropolitan area's land mass and population. It should be obvious that as metropolitan areas continue to grow, more people live in suburbs. It should be clear why this is so. Compared to the entire land mass and population of a metropolitan area, the formal center city, such as Washington, Baltimore, Boston, New York City, etc., is but a small proportion of a metropolitan area's total population and land mass.
For example, the DC metropolitan area has a population of about 6 million. Less than 15% of this population is located in DC. DC comprises about 1.5% of the total land area of the metropolitan area (less when you take into account how much of the land is controlled by the federal government and not subject to development). Given these facts, it's unlikely that the city could capture a majority of population and economic growth.
New York City is part of a three-state metropolitan area greater than 13,000 square miles. The total population of the metro is slightly more than 20 million. New York City has about 8.5 million residents, in an area a cotch larger than 300 square miles.
What is significant first is that center cities are dense, with a large population in a small area. DC is about 60 square miles and has about 680,000 residents. The suburbs Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland are each about 400 square miles in size, and each has about 1.1 million residents. Each is about 6.5x larger than DC physically, with less than twice the population.
What is significant second, is rather than a story of center city shrinkage--which was the case from the 1950s to around 2000--there is a renewed interest in living and working in center cities, and center cities are capturing more residents and more business than they had previously. Since roughly 2000, there has been a change in demand for urban living. It's marginal, but significant enough to demonstrate significant "relative" levels of population in-migration, new construction especially of multiunit housing, etc.
Much of this in-migration has been centered upon downtowns or the "central business district," which has shifted from a unidimensional office canyon active only in the daytime to a mixed use district including a significant proportion of multiunit housing and night-time districts supported in large part by residents.
-- Downtown Living, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2002
-- Who Lives Downtown, Brookings Institution, 2005
Downtown Living Infographic
This is true for most major cities, Chicago being an exception in terms of experiencing population shrinkage, but growth in terms of business headquarters capture.
Baltimore too is an exception, which is why I have suggested that Baltimore City and Baltimore County re-merge--they de-merged in 1851--becoming the nation's seventh largest city ("Baltimore Business Journal).
Interestingly, in DC specifically, we have been less successful than other cities like Boston or Chicago, in capturing large businesses relocating from the suburbs. E.g., Hilton moved from California to Tysons, and Choice and Marriott stayed in the suburbs with their moves/announced moves. A large Nestle division is moving from California to Rosslyn, not DC. (Although Caterpillar recently announced a move from Peoria to Deerfield, not Chicago proper, because they want easy airport access). Etc.
The suburbs are intensifying too. The NYT article does make a crucial point, that suburbs are moving to a newer stage of development that is confusingly also called "urbanization" in the academic study of land use.
The phenomenon called the "edge city" 30 years ago is moving to a new stage that is moving towards greater accommodation of transit and walking, more focused on developing placemaking qualities, and somewhat less automobile-centric.
This is demonstrated within the suburbs in how the "intensifying areas" are succeeding in terms of adding population and business activity, the more disconnected and car-dependent areas of these places are languishing.
The fact is that the market is bifurcating along the lines of concentration vs. disconnectionh. See "Continued Strength In Suburban Office Markets Dispels Myths, Bisnow versus "Big foreclosure suit ensnares suburban office, industrial buildings," Crain's Chicago Business. I have written about this in terms of the Fairfax County market, which is going through "reproduction of space" as a result of the Silver Line subway refocusing development in the Tysons-Reston Corridor.
With opposition. Although intensification in the suburbs is accompanied by a great deal of angst, as suburban residents often believe that suburban intensification is somehow a kind of repudiation of the "suburban ideal." See "End of free parking is the last straw for some Reston residents" and "In downtown Bethesda, residents and county debate whether more height is right," Washington Post, and "Reston: On a Collision Course," Connection Newspapers.
Suburban growth accompanied by growth in poverty and demand for aging services. Just as suburbs continue to capture "more growth," as suburbs mature they are capturing more poverty ("Suburbs and the New American Poverty," Atlantic).
When the original "unique selling proposition" of the suburbs was how center cities functioned as a metropolitan area's "poverty sink" with a disproportionate share of the region's poor, and the demand for social services to serve them. I used to call that reality a type of "quality of life subsidy" to the suburbs, one dumped on the cities, but now there is a turnabout.
-- Confronting Suburban Poverty website
-- Build a Better Burb website
-- First Suburbs Consortium, Greater Cleveland
Similarly, as people age, suburbs are forced to meet a greater demand for aging services, with limited financial means to address the need ("Aging in the American Suburbs: A Changing Population," Aging Well Magazine.
Center city proponents need to be conversant with the nuances. In any case, there are many ways to look at this issue, and proponents of center city primacy must be able to discuss the objective and subjective elements of the argument. A particularly good argument is presented by Steve Belmont in Cities in Full, which argues for "recentralizing growth" on the center city. And in some respects, that is what is occurring, with a lot of opposition from states, suburbs, and Republican legislators.
I have argued for a long time ("DC as a suburban agenda dominated city") that the people most traditionally active in local civic affairs in DC came to the fore during the period of the shrinking city when the priority was staunching outmigration and stabilizing neighborhoods in the face of trends that did not favor urban living.
Now that the city has the opportunity to grow in terms of population and business activity, people may need a different skill set and attitude, and also concern themselves with satisfying future residents, not just current residents, based on events and experiences solely from the past.
The digital economy renews the value of "agglomeration economies" Reading Richard Florida's new book, The New Urban Crisis, I wouldn't claim that this point was made as directly as it should have been, but it spurred me to think about how with changes in economic and social conditions in terms of the impact of digitalization and globalization, "agglomeration economies" have again become increasingly important.
"Agglomeration economies" is a fundamental concept from urban economics. The Geography of Transportation webpage at Hofstra University defines them thusly:
Agglomeration economies are a powerful force that help explain the advantages of the "clustering effect" of many activities ranging from retailing to transport terminals. There are three major categories of agglomeration economies:The job market and the world economy is much more competitive and operates much faster, making agglomeration or "clustering" valuable again when in the post-war period through the first decade of the 21st century, automobile-centric land use and transportation development paradigms allowed automobility to trump the clustering value of place/location.
Urbanization economies. Benefits derived from the agglomeration of population, namely common infrastructures (e.g. utilities or public transit), the availability and diversity of labor and market size;
Industrialization economies. Benefits derived from the agglomeration of industrial activities, such as being their respective suppliers or customers. This favors the emergence of industrial clusters;
Localization economies. Benefits derived from the agglomeration of a set of activities near a specific facility, let it be a transport terminal (logistics parks), a seat of government (lobbying, consulting, law) or a large university (technology parks).:
Transportation and agglomeration economies. Transportation efficiencies have always been the primary factor in the development of cities, starting with how most cities developed as ports on oceans, lakes, and rivers.
For example, wheat was milled close to where it was produced (Minneapolis-St. Paul) because of the cost of transportation. Heavy appliances like stoves and bathtubs were manufactured locally because they were "too heavy" to transport cheaply to other markets, etc.
Mills could locate far from where wheat was grown and no longer did every city need its own manufacturing plant for appliances.
It still wasn't perfect, because railroads didn't charge a flat rate for transportation of goods, they charged on the basis of the value of the product, so there was still a reticence to ship long distances goods that were particularly expensive.
The road network enabled--for a long time but not indefinitely--automobile transportation to trump the value of agglomeration. The creation of a ubiquitous and integrated road network serving local, metropolitan, regional, multi-state and national markets supported the rise of a deconcentrated land use and transportation planning paradigm, where uses are separated, and people mostly use a personally-owned automobile to get from place to place.
Cheap cars, cheap gas, the "open road" and plenty of free parking enabled the outward spread of commerce from center cities to the arterials and freeways of the suburbs with the creation of strip shopping centers, shopping malls, and business districts off freeways.
The carrying capacity of the road network is fixed. This works, at the cost of owning and maintaining a car, building and maintaining the road network, and at the economic, military, and environmental costs of a fossil-fuel based mobility network.
But it stops working when any of those factors/conditions change substantively, including the "carrying capacity" of the road network.
Richard Florida argues that as metropolitan areas reach a population of 5 to 6 million, an automobile-centric mobility network has decreasing marginal returns. (I believe that the writings of Newman and Kenworthy make a similar point.)
There is a line in the Jacobs book Nature of Economies, when she responds to a question of "Why aren't there enough roads?" with the response, "You're asking the wrong question. The right question is 'why are there so many cars?'"
Cities long ago recognized that the carrying capacity of the road network wasn't great enough to satisfy the various mobility and exchange needs of the cities and developed robust transit systems. According to a book review of David Engwicht's Reclaiming our cities and towns: better living through less traffic:
Engwicht maintains that cities were originally created as places for people to come together to trade goods and stories. A city, by definition, can be seen as a concentration of exchange opportunities. Cars get in the way of these exchanges in several ways. They drive people out of public spaces and create inhospitable environments for social interaction because of noise, fumes, and the barrier effects of the stream of traffic. Furthermore, they eliminate what he calls the "spontaneous" exchange — the unplanned encounter — thereby depriving cities of their essential spontaneity and life.
Traffic also sets into motion a wide range of self-reinforcing inefficiencies, according to Engwicht. Cars require roads, which require space, which require urban expansion, which requires more travel, which in turn requires more space.
This is the general argument of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Brookings Institution, that "metropolitan areas" -- that is center cities and the suburbs combined -- should be seen as the primary building blocks of the national economy and that US political and governance systems should be reformulated to recognize and support this reality.
Brookings laid these arguments out in the book Metropolitan Revolution.
See my review and also "Resurging cities, resurging metros, the impoverished and the Metropolitan Revolution (continued)" and "States, economic development, and sub-state/metropolitan area political restructuring."
In the meantime, the Trump Administration is doing all it can to screw cities in terms of proposals to defund transit, housing programs, health insurance programs, other poverty programs, etc.
And the DC area specifically, as the Trump Administration proposes significantly less money than is required to build new facilities for agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.