December 13, 2014


A Planet of Suburbs : The world is becoming ever more suburban, and the better for it (The Economist, 12/12/14)

THIRTY kilometres south of central Chennai, just out of earshot of the honking, hand-painted lorries roaring up Old Mahabalipuram Road, you seem to have reached rural India. The earth road buckles and heaves. Farmers dressed in Madras-checked dhotis rest outside huts roofed with palm leaves. Goats wander about. Then you turn a corner, go through a gate, and arrive in California.

Lakewood Enclave is a new development of 28 large two-storey houses, wedged tightly together. The houses are advertised as "Balinese-style", although in truth they are hard to tell apart from any number of suburban homes around the world. Outside, the houses are painted a pale pinkish-brown; inside, the walls are white, the floors are stone and the design is open-plan. They each have three bedrooms (middle-class Tamil families are small these days) and a covered driveway to protect a car from the melting sun. Just one detail makes them distinctively Indian: a cupboard near the door for Hindu gods.

A quarter of a century ago your correspondent taught in a school not far from these houses. It was a rural area; bonnet macaques would sometimes invade his shower. Now farmers are selling their small parcels of land to housebuilders for sums beyond previous imagining. Commuters are rushing in so that, every morning, they can rush out again. Chengalpattu, the district where Lakewood lies (see map on next page--where the new development is also pictured), now contains more than half a million people. Lakewood looks likely to be the rule, not the exception. "The force of human nature means it will happen," says Balaji Narasimhan of SSPDL, its developer. "You can't stop it."

The shift in population from countryside to cities across the world is often called the "great urbanisation". It is a misleading term. The movement is certainly great: the United Nations reckons that the total urban population in developing countries will double between 2010 and 2050, to 5.2 billion, while the rural population will shrink slightly. But it is nothing like as obviously urban. People may be moving towards cities, but most will not end up in their centres. Few cities are getting more crowded downtown; between 2001 and 2011 Chennai added just 7% more people while Chengalpattu swelled by 39%. In developed and developing worlds, outskirts are growing faster than cores. This is not the great urbanisation. It is the great suburbanisation. [...]

Just how powerful and widespread this centrifugal trend will be is suggested by the work of Shlomo Angel, a geographer at New York University. By using satellite images, old maps and population data, Mr Angel has run a ruler over some 3,600 metropolitan areas. He finds that, with few exceptions, they are less dense in wealthier countries (see map). Paris is less than one-third as densely populated as Cairo and barely one-seventh as dense as Mumbai. Even rich cities that seem packed are sparsely populated compared with poorer ones. Tokyo is only one-fifth as densely populated as Dhaka, for example.

Mr Angel also finds that almost every city is becoming less dense. In 1920 Chicago squeezed 59 people into each hectare of land; now, by his reckoning, it manages just 16. The urbanised area of Mexico City is about half as densely populated as it was in 1940. Beijing's population density has collapsed from 425 people per hectare in 1970 to just 65 people per hectare, or about the same as Chicago at its most crowded. Few metropolises are becoming more crowded, and most of those that are were exceptionally spread out to begin with, such as Los Angeles and Johannesburg.

The simple truth is that as people become richer they consume more space, just as they consume more energy, more goods and more services. Even if they live in towers, those towers are likely to be widely spaced, and the households that live in them will be small--wealth also being associated with small families. Mr Angel finds that population densities tend to drop when Chinese cities knock down cheaply built walk-up apartments and replace them with high towers. And many people will opt not to live in towers but in even less dense detached or semi-detached houses.

Wealth fuels sprawl. [...]

A few years ago, when foreclosure and rising petrol prices held American suburbs in a vice, confident predictions were made about their abandonment and the repopulation of city centres. William Frey of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, has shown that urban counties are indeed growing in population more quickly than they did a decade ago, while suburban growth has slowed. The two are now roughly equal (see chart). This does not, however, mean that Americans are now equally drawn to central cities and to suburbs. The fastest-growing parts of the country are now nearly all suburban (the exceptions are urban New Orleans, still bouncing back from Hurricane Katrina, and rural North Dakota, which is fired by a shale-gas boom). Between 2007 and 2011 the 25 biggest county-to-county migrations in America were all from more urban counties to more suburban ones.

Between 2012 and 2013 the areas that the Census Bureau calls "principal cities" absorbed 3.3m migrants from elsewhere in America--but they shed 5.4m people, leaving a net loss due to in-country migration of 2.1m. Foreign immigrants and babies saved them from outright depopulation. The suburbs, meanwhile, added 5.8m domestic migrants and only lost 3.2m, suggesting their pull remains enormously strong. A big part of the attraction is schools; they are still often dire in the middles of cities.

Posted by at December 13, 2014 6:45 AM

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