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.”…
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…
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.
Is this simply a battle of interpreting statistics? For example, Kotkin says Millennials aren’t completely enamored with the suburbs while others have used these statistics to mean other things. Kotkin says that Americans continue to vote for the suburbs with their actions. When given a choice, Kotkin seems to be suggesting that a majority of Americans, young and old, would choose the suburbs if all things were equal. In contrast, Kotkin suggests that urbanists want people to want the city. This ideology (“theology” in his terms) guides their interpretation of the data and leads to wishful thinking.
This is a bigger debate that isn’t addressed directly here: are the cities or suburbs better for people, society, and the world? Kotkin’s writings lean toward giving people freedom which is found more in the suburbs. Urbanists make arguments the other way: cities are greener, more diverse, and more cultured. Would or could Kotkin make his arguments if most Americans lived in cities rather than suburbs? This is really a discussion about values: should people live in the cities and suburbs and isn’t just about current or future realities.