Thursday, May 07, 2009

Suburbs are the wave of the future

Despite the occasional rantings of a few automobile-less Washingtonians in this blog's comments, suburban living is here to stay. Not only are people still choosing to live in the suburbs, but employers are increasingly opening up shop in the suburbs. (Think Tyson's Corner, Reston, Chantilly, etc.)
Despite the wishful thinking of urbanophile pundits and policymakers, central cities have little realistic chance to reclaim their pre-1950 role as the dominant arbiters of American life.

Short of a catastrophic change, the country will remain predominately made up of suburban, exurban and small town residents. Since 2000, more than four-fifths of metropolitan growth has taken place in suburbs and exurbs. Economically, we see a similar pattern. According to a recent Brookings Institution study of 98 large metropolitan areas, only 21% of employees work within three miles of downtown.


  1. Hmm, yes, an opinion piece without anything to back it up at all. All he is really doing is extrapolating recent trends and assuming that this is what the future will be like.

    The problem with exurban living is the lack of sustainability. All of those exurban homes require lots of additional infrastructure - in particular roads, but right now localities are stretched to the breaking point.

    But my greatest concern is peak oil. The world uses a staggering quantity of oil every day, and we are at a point where the amount produced every day will being to decline and all the drilling in the world isn't going to change that. So far, none of the alternatives that people are talking about can make up even a fraction of the difference, and even electric cars are a long way from being a sure thing. So you do the math - what is likely to happen to oil prices as the overall supply declines, and what is that likely to do to the exurbs?

  2. Jack, urban living has its own inefficiencies.

    I think what's more likely is the creation of micro-cities. Small centers, built around a few offices clustered together, with the people who work there living close by.

  3. The micro cities sound viable to me as long as most of what people need is nearby. Perhaps even clusters of micro cities (like clusters of grapes), which to an outside observer may appear to be urban.

    In particular I was arguing against the exurbs - where virtually nothing that people need is nearby, and where people have to do lots of driving.

  4. Before I read the article, I just knew it was Joel Kotkin who wrote it. Guy hates cities with a passion.

    Kotkin seems to get riled up when the urbanists say "there is a revival in the cities" which is true. He always takes this to imply the author is suggesting the converse, that the "suburbs are dying" which may or may not be true.

    The reality is (a) the suburbs ARE here to stay because many people prefer them and have the means to pay for them. However, what is also true is that (b) the cities are now becoming desirable. Yes, revival of the cities will take some residents away from the burbs, but the burbs shall remain the dominant (in absolute numbers) way of life for the middle class.

    Thus this isnt an "either or" debate, which Kotkin never seems to grasp. Its a "both are desirable" versus "only suburbs are desirable" debate. The answer is clearly, "both are desirable" a point Kotkin seems to miss again and again and again.

  5. Right, that is why that hot suburban enclave of prince william county has gone from 405k at the peak to 170k today, while the District has gone from 430k to 375k. Home buyers seem to disagree.

  6. No one wants to live in the cities, housing is too expensive! People love their 2 hour commutes from the exurbs, that's why housing is so cheap out there!

    Wait ... that's how supply and demand works right?

  7. Jack,
    Peak Oil isn't about running out of oil any time soon. In fact if we are at peak (it is likely), it is calculated that we have about 50 years of it left at our current consumption rate. Yes all the drilling in the world will work for us, and the problem is just that. Due to new drilling technologies, we can still access it all for some time to come. It will just cost a lot more than it did. The harder we drill, the more expensive the oil is to produce.

    So its not the end of oil, its the end of CHEAP oil. Driving a personal petro powered vehicle in the future may be a luxury, not a commonplace.

    I love the micro city idea. I already live in one (Seward Alaska, Pop. 2500-3000) and I love it.

  8. ssfink-

    You are taking things I never said, and then trying to correct me. I never said that peak oil meant running out any time soon - I said it meant that the total world production rate would decline.

    And all I said about drilling was that more drilling wouldn't change the fact that oil production will (or has already) peaked.

  9. You're all overlooking Jame's bias toward the suburbs, and "Centreville" in particular. He hates Washington passionately, and is car dependent by choice. The notion of walking anywhere for anything is analogous to failure in his view.

    Just stating the obvious James, don't get all riled up....

  10. I live in Rockville, work in Rockville, shop in Rockville. I work for a government contractor and make GREAT money....lived in this area for 3 years and have been to downtown DC twice. You couldnt make buy property there and take the metro to work if you pointed a gun at my head.

  11. Jack sorry, you are right. I re-read your post. You used the words "supply declines" a few times and I took them out of context. As I reaf more carefully, you do understand.

    I took "supply declines" in the same terms as when I hear a lot of people say "we are running out of oil" to justify the high prices we had last year. The fact is we are not running out of oil, its just getting more expensive to produce. Even if Peak means we have depleted half, it would be like having a half a tank of gas in your car and saying "I am running out of gas".

    I live in Alaska, and my paycheck depends on the oil industry. So I must keep an eye on the situation.

    Again I apologize.

  12. ssfink - No problem..

    Here's another story I saw which essentially states the opposite of what the post cited above said:

    Suburban expansion has been hit hard by the current recession and consumer preferences. Across the country, growth rates in outer suburban areas have dropped to an anemic 1.6 percent, the lowest we have seen. The flip side is that 50 percent of folks want to live near town centers, according to a poll by the National Association of Realtors, the highest in this survey since its inception.

    By a two-to-one margin folks would rather have investments in mass transportation than in road building. In addition, not one new indoor mall has been built in the past two years ANYWHERE in the country, whereas during the ‘90s, 19 were built each year. To put an exclamation point on this, the second-largest mall builder in the country just filed for bankruptcy.

  13. Its pretty ironic, cause I just got back from staying in Japan (lived there for 8 years)...One of the countries with the best source of public transportation and longest stint of dead suburban real estate sales and the "aeon" indoor malls were popping up like weeds everywhere by the thousands.

  14. Unreal. First there is a post about unsellable suburban homes being torn down by the banks, then there is this post about suburbia being the wave of the future.

    I'm the commenter who coined the phrase "sprawl-based economy", and I'm the commenter who stated that the sprawl-based economy is dead. I stand by my statement.

  15. One fascinating aspect to the opinion piece linked here is that it touts "decentralization" as being a defining trend over the past few decades.

    All one need do is ask "What made that trend possible?"

    Oh, by the way, here is a completely unrelated (ahem) news story (not an opinion piece):

    WASHINGTON - Gas prices are jumping up. In the D.C. Metro area prices jumped 13 cents in the last week to an average of $2.17 a gallon for unleaded regular.

    Nationwide, gas prices rose 6 percent or about 12 cents a gallon over the last week.

    Gas prices increased every one of the last 10 days, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

    Supply continues to outpace demand. Oil inventories in the U.S. are at a 19-year high of 375.3 million barrels.

    "Traders think that the economy may be coming back. By virtue of that, drivers may be driving more, and that may be a sign of economic activity," says John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

    Townsend says experts who predicted the start of the summer driving season would not bring an increase in prices appear to be wrong. The unofficial start to summer -- Memorial Day weekend -- is two weeks away.

  16. Funny, I agree with the columnist. Most folks *will* live in the 'burbs. The folks who can afford it will live in the cities, or in increasingly walkable (i.e. "urban") streetcar suburbs like Bethesda, Alexandria, etc...

    The poor will live in the sprawling exurbs. As urban schools continue to improve, this process will only accelerate.

  17. "IBC said...The poor will live in the sprawling exurbs. As urban schools continue to improve, this process will only accelerate."

    Yep - its a shame that this had to start so close to the bubble - its what led everyone to assume that price gains in "streetcar suburbs" were just as fabricated as the gains in the regular suburbs. Boy was that wrong.

    Prices will continue to decline in both areas, but just as its been for the last 2 years, the desirable streetcar suburbs will see milder drops than the undesirable McBurbs.

    Too bad for all those who need massive price drops in order to buy in the desirable streetcar suburbs. Looks like these guys were priced out forever.

  18. There's an interesting dynamic going on with schools: it's a zero-sum game. As schools improve in the urban areas, housing prices rise, and the urban poor are forced out to the suburbs. Urban residents are essentially exporting what have traditionally been thought of as "urban ills" to the suburbs.

    It will be interesting to see with what success suburban municipalities are able to address issues of multi-generational, intensive poverty.

    I thought it was particularly amusing in the linked article that the author gave overall population as an indicator of the continued cultural and economic dominance of the suburbs: "More people will live in the exurbs/suburbs than in urban areas!"

    You know, more people on this planet live in abject poverty than those who drink a nice latte every morning. I'd hardly call that an indicator of personal preference, though.

  19. "As schools improve in the urban areas"

    What is this based on? Less wanna be gangbangers, less shootings, less drug deals and other gang related crime in the urban schools?

    ...or just less drop outs and crappy test scores?

  20. The former - crime has decreased substantially in the last 15 years allowing the whiteys to move in (or the whiteys moved in, dropping crime - im not sure which was first.

    Once the whiteys moved in, they did what they always do - demand more from their school system...They are getting it.

    20 years ago, the idea that Arlington had good schools was laughable - not anymore. DC & Alexandria, which still have crappy schools are working like nowhere else to improve them. Michelle Rhee is known on a national stage because of her work trying to fix things - both obama & McCain mentioned her in the debate as a model of what we should be doing.

    Its gonna take a while - 10 years after whiteys moved in NYC schools still suck - but the improvement since the dark days of the 80s is remarkable.

  21. What is this based on?Gentrification. Skyrocketing home values, and corresponding rents.

    Our local ES on Capitol Hill was a dysfunctional hell-hole 5-10 years ago. Now there are 4-5 great public elementary schools, and several charter options. Drive past Lincoln Park at 4pm after the schools let out. You may be surprised by what you see.

    The District (and DCPS) is losing population. That population loss consists almost entirely of large, low-income families. They are being replaced by two-income households with 0-2 children max. Drive up North Capitol Street or through the area south of the Southeast Freeway. Block after block of public housing has been quietly razed.

    The displaced families are moving to the suburbs. That trend will only accelerate because of the pro-business, and pro-middle-class policies of the Williams and Fenty administrations.

  22. "IBC said...The District (and DCPS) is losing population. That population loss consists almost entirely of large, low-income families."

    Its true that the large low income families are leaving, but the white influx is now so strong that the district is gaining population. Mostly dinks though - hence DCPS still isnt gaining much. Give it time....

  23. fer chrissakes, hurry up and gentrify Mt Pleasant/Columbia Heights already! i'm forgetting how to speak engish...when are these people going back home?