July 6, 2010

THE CITY WAS AN IDEA THAT FAILED:

The Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration (Joel Kotkin, 07/06/2010, New Geography)

[T]the great migration back to the city hasn't occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased. Meanwhile, demographer Wendell Cox's analysis of census figures show that a much-celebrated rise in the percentage of multifamily housing peaked at 40% of all new housing permits in 2008, and it has since fallen to below 20% of the total, slightly lower than in 2000.

Housing prices in and around the nation's urban cores is clear evidence that the back-to-the-city movement is wishful thinking. Despite cheerleading from individuals such as University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida, and Carole Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities and the Urban Land Institute, this movement has crashed in ways that match—and in some cases exceed—the losses suffered in suburban and even exurban locations. Condos in particular are a bellwether: Downtown areas, stuffed with new condos, have suffered some of the worst housing busts in the nation. [...]

Behind the condo bust is a simple error: people's stated preferences. Virtually every survey of opinion, including a 2004 poll co-sponsored by Smart Growth America, a group dedicated to promoting urban density, found that roughly 13% of Americans prefer to live in an urban environment while 33% prefer suburbs, and another 18% like exurbs. These patterns have been fairly consistent over the last several decades.

Demographic trends, including an oft-predicted tsunami of Baby Boom "empty nesters" to urban cores, have been misread. True, some wealthy individuals have moved to downtown lofts. But roughly three quarters of retirees in the first bloc of retiring baby boomers are sticking pretty close to the suburbs, where the vast majority now reside. Those that do migrate, notes University of Arizona Urban Planning Professor Sandi Rosenbloom, tend to head further out into the suburban periphery. "Everybody in this business wants to talk about the odd person who moves downtown, but it's basically a 'man bites dog story,'" she says. "Most retire in place."

Historically, immigrants have helped prop up urban markets. But since 1980 the percentage who settle in urban areas has dropped to 34% from 41%. Some 52% are now living in suburbs, up from 44% 30 years ago. This has turned places such as Bergen County, N.J., Fort Bend County, Texas, and the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles into the ultimate exemplars of multicultural America.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 6, 2010 2:31 PM
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