Not so fast: turning suburbs into cities

One way to revive America’s cities may be to adapt to increasing densities in Americans suburbs:

But this analysis also misses something important. These trends don’t just represent people’s moving decisions — they also represent changes in the places themselves. If enough people move to a low-density area, it becomes a high-density area.

People are pouring into Dallas and San Diego. So unless those cities continue to sprawl ever farther out across the countryside, the new arrivals will increase density. People will want to live close to their jobs instead of enduring hour-long commutes. Apartment blocks will spring up where once-empty fields or single-family homes stood. Today’s fast-growing suburb is tomorrow’s urban area.

In other words, the great urban revival might not be ending, it might just be relocating. Instead of piling into existing cores, Americans might simply be creating new ones across the country. And if each of these new cities creates the productivity advantages enjoyed by places like San Francisco and New York City, this could be a good thing for the economy.

This is an intriguing concept: some suburbs, because of their popularity, willingness to build taller structures, and population size, might become like cities. This has already happened to some degree in a number of suburbs across the country.

Yet, just because a location has a certain number of people or reaches certain population densities does not necessarily mean that it feels or operates like a city. We also already have some denser urban areas – see the Los Angeles suburbs which are pretty dense compared to many metropolitan areas – but that does not automatically make them cities or urban. What is required? Most American cities have: a core or multiple cores that are multi-use and include a good number of businesses or offices; a walkability that extends for a good distance (beyond just a suburban downtown or large shopping center) and mass transit options to extend beyond the core(s) – in other words, good options beyond operating a car; a vibrancy and diversity that could range from thriving economic activity to restaurants and bars to filled public spaces; and an identity among residents and others that the area is a city.

Imagine Naperville, Illinois really wanted to become a city. It starts approving dense residential and commercial projects throughout the community. (Just to note: the local government has rejected these in the past.) The population ticks upward past 200,000 or even 300,000. There are still some pockets of single-family homes and vestiges of small-town life. How long would it take for the conditions of a city as discussed above arise? How would the community adapt to having so many businesses along I-88 rather than downtown? Would this limit the number of people who ride into Chicago on the Metra each day? (Naperville right now has the busiest stops in the whole system.) How would a city atmosphere develop? This all would take significant time and effort and perhaps decades before Naperville would be considered from both the inside and outside a city.

I disagree: Loop building boom a sign of “the re-urbanization of America”

An insightful analysis of the high-rise construction boom in Chicago’s Loop includes this claim about what all this new development means:

“It’s the re-urbanization of America,” said John Lahey, chairman of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in residential high-rises.

It’s also a shift in the urban map: The once-frayed edges of downtown, home to the poor and working-class, are now the glittering home of the affluent. Rental rates, while less expensive than on the coasts, still leave many priced out. City officials last month proposed a pilot program to generate affordable housing in gentrifying areas of the Near North and Near West sides as well as along Milwaukee Avenue. But changing the trajectory of the marketplace won’t be easy.

This is an interesting claim to make in Chicago. The “Super Loop” is indeed growing in population and tall buildings. But, the city as a whole is not doing so well. See the population loss. See the persistent problems – meaning, decades-long concerns – in numerous poor neighborhoods. See the slow population growth in the suburbs within the metropolitan region and also the emerging presence of urban issues (affordable housing, poverty, exclusion) in suburban areas.

A better description might be this: what is happening is the concentration of wealth in urban cores while outlying areas of cities and suburbs are suffering. The same process is happening in New York City, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, and other major cities.

Would you rather have more McMansions or denser neighborhoods?

Portland is looking into ways that residential neighborhoods might change:

McMansions could be thing of the past in Portland if city planners get their way.

But densities could also increase in parts of many existing single-family residential neighborhoods.

Those are two of the proposals in the recent staff report of the Residential Infill Project. It includes several recommendations intended to balance the need to create more housing in Portland while protecting the character of the city’s established neighborhoods…

The comments represent a split that emerged on the committee in recent months. As housing affordability has become a bigger issue in Portland, the developers have joined with those concerned about rising home prices and preserving the urban growth boundary to accept size restrictions in exchange for the ability to build more homes. Some called it “the grand bargain” during the meeting.

The neighborhood representatives have argued that even smaller homes won’t necessarily be inexpensive — and could still undermine the character of existing neighborhoods. Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association representative Rod Merrick denied that any bargain had been agreed to.

This is an interesting trade-off. Established residents in many communities wouldn’t like either option as it (1) could significantly change the character of the neighborhood they know and (2) each option has particular downsides (McMansions could be oddly designed and bring in wealthier residents, higher densities could lead to many more residents and different kinds of structures). But, if cities like Portland are serious about affordable housing and don’t want to promote endless sprawl (and Portland is quite unique with its urban growth boundary), density is really the only option.

If I had to guess at the outcome here, the new denser housing will be constructed only in certain places (perhaps in redevelopment areas or in places where residents are less organized) and it won’t be as cheap or as plentiful as needed for the region. Creating more affordable housing is not an easy task…

American culture wars to move next to fighting over the suburbs?

Joel Kotkin is back with the claim that the next American culture war will be over the suburbs:

The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live. In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future. Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently…

Yet it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost. Notably in coastal California, but other places, too, suburban housing is increasingly relegated to the affluent.

The obstacles being erected include incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities, and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl. The EPA wants to designate even small, seasonal puddles as “wetlands,” creating a barrier to developers of middle-class housing, particularly in fast-growing communities in the Southwest. Denizens of free-market-oriented Texas could soon be experiencing what those in California, Oregon and other progressive bastions have long endured: environmental laws that make suburban development all but impossible, or impossibly expensive. Suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs are being banned under pressure from planners…

Progressive theory today holds that the 2014 midterm results were a blast from the suburban past, and that the  key groups that will shape the metropolitan future—millennials and minorities—will embrace ever-denser, more urbanized environments. Yet in the last decennial accounting, inner cores gained 206,000 people, while communities 10 miles and more from the core gained approximately 15 million people.

This is one long piece but provides a lot of insight into what Kotkin and others have argued for years: liberals, for a variety of reasons, want to limit the spread and eventually reduce the American suburbs in favor of more pluralistic and diverse urban centers. I would be interested to know which issue Kotkin is most afraid of:

1. Maybe this is really just about politics and winning elections. The split between exurban Republican areas and Democratic urban centers has grown with the suburbs hanging in the balance. Perhaps conservatives fear moving people to cities will turn them more liberal and hand all future elections to Democrats. Of course, lots of liberals had fears after World War II that new suburbanites were going to immediately turn Republican.

2. This may be about the growing teeth of the environmental movement operating through legislation but also agencies and others that are difficult to counter. Suburban areas may just take up more resources but Kotkin and others don’t see this as a big issue compared to the freedom people should have to choose the suburbs. Should there be any limits to using the environment on a societal level?

3. Perhaps this is about maintaining a distinctively American way of life compared to Europeans. Some fear that international organizations and the United Nations are pushing denser, green policies that most Americans don’t really want. The suburbs represent the American quest for the frontier as well as having a plot of land where other people, particularly the government, can’t come after you. This ignores that there still are single-family homes in Europe – though on average smaller homes on smaller lots.

Or, maybe this is a combination of all three: “If the suburbs go, then what America was or stands for dies!” Something like that. Imagine “Don’t Tread On Me” making its last or most important stand on the green lawns of post-World War II split levels.

I have a hard time seeing this as the next big culture war topic that reaches a resolution in a short amount of time (say within a decade), primarily because so many Americans do live in the suburbs and the suburbs have such a long standing in American culture. But, perhaps a movement could start soon that would see fruition in the future.

A number of city-dwelling Americans say they live in suburbs

A new survey from Trulia shows some city residents see themselves as living in a suburb, highlighting the blurry lines between urban and suburban areas in some cities:

To develop a standard definition of suburban that reflects what residents experience, the online real estate site Trulia, where I am the chief economist, surveyed 2,008 adults from across the U.S. We asked them to describe where they live as urban, suburban or rural, and we purposely did not define these terms for them. We also had each respondent’s ZIP code, which we used to identify his or her city, metropolitan area and state of residence. For this research, we treated ZIP codes as neighborhoods even though many ZIP codes encompass more area than what people may think of as a neighborhood.

It turns out that many cities’ legal boundaries line up poorly with what local residents perceive as urban. Nationally, 26 percent of Americans described where they live as urban, 53 percent said suburban and 21 percent said rural. (This comes close to the census estimate that 81 percent of the population is urban if “urban” is understood to include suburban areas.) Within “principal cities” of metropolitan areas (the census designates one or more cities in each metro as “principal”), respondents split 47 percent urban, 46 percent suburban and 7 percent rural, though those percentages include people in many small cities and metro areas. Looking only at respondents in the larger principal cities (those with a population greater than 100,000) of larger metropolitan areas (those with a population greater than 500,000), the breakdown was 56 percent urban, 42 percent suburban and 2 percent rural. That means close to half of people who live within city limits describe where they live as suburban.

Our analysis showed that the single best predictor of whether someone said his or her area was urban, suburban or rural was ZIP code density. Residents of ZIP codes with more than 2,213 households per square mile typically described their area as urban. Residents of neighborhoods with 102 to 2,213 households per square mile typically called their area suburban. In ZIP codes with fewer than 102 households per square mile, residents typically said they lived in a rural area. The density cutoff we found between urban and suburban — 2,213 households per square mile — is roughly equal to the density of ZIP codes 22046 (Falls Church in Northern Virginia); 91367 (Woodland Hills in California’s San Fernando Valley); and 07666 (Teaneck, New Jersey)…

Furthermore, the new census population data shows that the fastest-growing large cities tend to be more suburban. Among the 10 fastest-growing cities with more than 500,000 people, five — Austin, Fort Worth, Charlotte, San Antonio and Phoenix — are majority suburban, and a sixth, Las Vegas, is only 50 percent urban. Only one of the 10 fastest-growing, Seattle, is at least 90 percent urban.

Several quick thoughts:

1. As this article notes in addition to a number of scholars, it is difficult to measure exactly what the suburbs are. The Census Bureau definition put the suburbs between central cities in metropolitan areas and rural areas though geographically limited by county lines. As this survey notes, there are official geographic boundaries but then there are also the lived experiences of residents.

2. It is not surprising that Sunbelt city residents may be more likely to see themselves as suburban. These cities are often much bigger than cities in the Northeast and the Midwest which were hemmed in by more restrictive annexation laws around the turn of the 20th century.

3. This gets more complicated in surveys if you allow people to choose that they live in a small town as many suburban residents would choose that option.

“Megacities Might Not Save the Planet After All”

One researcher suggests not all megacities are as efficient as they might be:

It turns out that while density equals efficiency, “megacity” does not necessarily equal density. Many megacity dwellers live outside those hyper-efficient city centers, Kennedy explains. Look at New York—if you live in Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn and Queens, you’re probably getting around on the subway. But if you live in Westchester, New Haven, or Newark? You’re probably driving your car—maybe not into the city center, but around it. And there are a lot of you. That’s why New York is almost off the chart in its consumption of transportation fuel, despite all its great rail.


But not all megacities consume as many resources as New York. Look at the ones clustered at the bottom end of transportation energy use: Mumbai. Karachi. Lagos. Cairo. Delhi. These are also some of the cities that use the least amount of electricity per capita. Unfortunately that’s not because their electrical grids are super-efficient. It’s because not everyone living there has electricity. “There’s huge disparities between the amount of resources being used between the wealthiest megacities and the poorest ones,” Kennedy says. In the latter, the resource inputs aren’t enough to support a basic standard of living for all citizens…

So while developed-world megacities should consider reining in their gasoline and electricity use—or expanding center-city style efficient infrastructure to the ’burbs—growth (combined with smart policy) may be the answer to developing-world megacities’ woes. Which is good, because if one thing’s for sure it’s that megacities are growing, and they’re not going to stop.

So the issue may not really be density but a higher order issue of social class. In other words, efficiency is the result of different processes depending on the wealth and development of particular cities and countries. In wealthier countries, individuals have the resources to spread out and can afford to consume too much. On the other hand, poor countries have big cities with lots of residents who can’t afford to consume what they need.

All the world’s people could fit in NYC

The world’s population may be at record levels but everyone could fit in New York City if they all stood really close together:

Urban’s core assumption is that 10 humans can fit in a square meter. If you watch this video of nine journalists squeezing themselves into a square meter, you can see that while this would be cozy, it’s definitely possible. This especially true given that about a quarter of the world’s population is under 15.

At 10 people per square meter, that means we can fit 1,000 people in a 10-by-10-meter square. 54,000 people can fit in an American football field, and 26 million people – about the population of Scandinavia – can fit into one square mile, Urban writes. Central Park, which is 1.3 square miles or 3.4 square kilometers, could hold the population of Australia or Saudi Arabia. All 320 million Americans could huddle together into a square that is 3.5 miles or 5.7 kilometers on each side.

And what if we found a piece of land for everyone on Earth – all 7.3 billion of the world’s people? Urban calculates that we would need a square that is 27 km, or 16.8 miles, on each side – an area smaller than Bahrain and, yes, New York City.

Urban calculates that we could fit 590 million people in Manhattan — that takes care of North America. We could fit 1.38 billion people in Brooklyn, equivalent to the population of Africa, South America and Oceania. Queens could hold 2.83 billion — roughly the equivalent of India + China + Japan. 1.09 billion could fit in the Bronx, taking care of Europe, while 1.51 billion could fit Staten Island, making room for the rest of Asia ex-China, Japan and India.

Of course, this isn’t a long-term possibility. But, it does lead me to a few thoughts:

1. This suggests there is a lot of land where few people live. Some of this land is simply uninhabitable. But, there still must be more land where population densities are really low.

2. This reminds me of the sorts of calculations done by those who observe rallies and protests. Calculations of crowds on the National Mall utilize estimates of how close people can stand together for such events.

3. A more abstract question is what is the highest level of population density that can still support decent lives? If technology allowed people to live closer together in the future, would people choose this?