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I read this article a few months ago, and it reminded me of a geographic truism I’d figured out years ago.

The suburbs are bigger than the cities.

This first occurred to me after reading Robert Lang’s important work “Edgeless Cities”.  Its main claim was that the job growth in the suburbs had been much greater than in the cities for some time.  In Atlanta, famously, the suburbs were already outpacing the Central Business District by the 1960s.  Many cities we think of as the archetypes of urbanity are surrounded by vast and “edgeless” suburbs, with a network of housing , jobs and shopping stretching tens of miles away from the CBD.  They are called ageless because you cannot tell which way the CBD is from just looking at a random square mile of these suburbs.  They are not oriented to their city.

As striking as this is, it also relies on a truism.  Of course there are more jobs and housing in the suburbs. They are radially much larger than any CBD.

Recently, I read this article about the decline of the creative class and the fall of cities, by Joel Kotkin.  Setting aside the little slap fight detailed within, I was interested in the figures he offered as evidence of the continued irrelevance of cities.
Here are his figures for the 51 largest metros, repeated from Wendell Cox as damning evidence:

0-2 miles from CBD “Walkable City”: 206,000 residents added between 2000 and 2010
2-5 miles from CBD “Halfway to Everywhere” : 272,000 residents lost
10-20 miles from CBD “American Dreamscape” : 15,000,000 added

QED.  Those are some dramatic numbers, and I’d best just shut up about any hope of revival of city centers.

But then I thought, this doesn’t account for the areas involved.  What are the per square mile changes in population in these three bands to American metropoles?

Radius (mi) Area (Sq. Mi) Pop. Change/Sq. Mi.
0-2 12.57 16,400
2-5 65.97 -4,100
10-20 942.48 16,000

So, actually the center city is growing faster than the suburbs.  Not by much, but it is a reversal of a trend that lasted for over 50 years.

Another thing simple geometry does not explain is where the growth is occurring.  Many cities and metropoles are trying to deal with rising infrastructure costs and falling property taxes by encouraging walkable or mixed use developments rather than traffic dependent single use subdivisions.  While the installed base of many suburbs is overwhelmingly single-use subdivisions, most of the new things getting built are designed to allow walking, require less infrastructure per capita, and return more property taxes than they consume in services.  These are important assets in a time of fiscal conservatism.  Even if the suburbs are growing almost as fast as the cities, they are growing in a way that is more urban than ever.

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