A TURN TOWARD REURBANIZATION?

Has a decades-long trend to surburbanization run its course, and are we now on the cusp of a return to a more urban pattern of development?

Here are some reasons why we might expect that to happen and a few straws in the wind which suggest that it really is happening. The major reason is simply demography. Figure 2-2 shows births since 1940. Births climbed slowly from Depression-era lows during World War II and then accelerated thereafter. The baby boom, generally dated from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, peaked in 1957 at 4.31 million. Beginning in the mid-1960s births dropped off rapidly. By the mid-1970s there were about a million fewer births per year than there had been at the height of the baby boom. The average woman was not having nearly as many children as during the baby boom but there were many more women of childbearing age. From about 1990 to 2010 total births were comparable to baby boom levels. As Figure 2-3 shows, the U.S. population was by then very much larger than it had been during the baby boom. In 1960 people under the age of 20

Births from 1940 to 2012

FIGURE 2-2 Births from 1940 to 2012.

U.S. population 1940 to 2012. Source

FIGURE 2-3 U.S. population 1940 to 2012. Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

constituted 38.4 percent of the population. By 2010 they constituted only 19.7 percent of the population.

The percentage of childless adults and childless couples is much higher than it was and the average number of children in those families that do have children is smaller. The presence of large numbers of children was a major force behind suburbanization and clearly demographic change has weakened that force.

A few decades ago crime was a major force in driving the middle class out of many cities, the so-called "white flight." People who could afford to move to the suburbs did so in part for fears for their own safety and, often, more so for fears for their children's safety, both in school and on the street. And when they moved they took their buying power and their taxpaying capacity with them. But crime rates in many cities have been declining for some time. Table 2-2 shows the number of murders in five randomly chosen cities.

The figures shown in Table 2-2 are the actual totals, not rates. Murder rates are used because murder is the most accurately reported crime. The rates for other reported crimes, both violent ones such as assault and property crimes such as burglary and theft, followed similar paths. Since

TABLE 2-2 Murders in Five Cities for Selected Years

Year

New York

Chicago

Washington DC

Boston

Los Angeles

1965

838

395

81

N/A

N/A

1990

2065

851

472

116

987

2012

684

516

88

58

298

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports and municipal police departments.

2012, the last year shown in Table 2-2, crime rates in cities have generally declined, albeit slowly. In 2015, in a few cities, notably Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Chicago, homicide rates turned upward, for reasons about which there is no general agreement. However, overall, U.S. cities are much safer places now than they were some years ago.

The causes of the decline are not firmly established. Perhaps better policing is part of the explanation; incarceration may also be a cause. On any day in America, more than two million people, nine-tenths of them male, are locked up in local jails, state penitentiaries, and federal prisons. That figure is several times what it was a few decades ago. While many, including the writer, believe we err in the direction of excessive incarceration, it may be that it has been responsible for part of the decrease in crime. Some believe that the decline in the use of crack cocaine is part of the explanation. The economist Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, suggests that Roe v. Wade may be part of the explanation.14 That 1973 decision legalized abortion, and very shortly after the abortion rate started to rise. About two decades later crime rates started to head downward. Crime of the type that fills the prisons is largely a young man's game (rates for most offenses peak in the mid- or late teens). If one believes that unwanted children are more likely to be abused, neglected, or generally raised badly, there is some logic to his hypothesis.

Perhaps beyond any of the above explanations there are other basic changes in our society which are part of the explanation and that we do not yet understand. Whatever the causes, the huge decline in crime is beyond argument. Thus one major deurbanizing force has greatly weakened.

For a long time many people considered that buying a house was perhaps the best investment they could make. It was a leveraged investment, perhaps the only one to which most people ever had access. You scraped together the down payment any way you could, made your mortgage payments, and in due time owned the house free and clear instead of having a box full of rent receipts. The financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession changed many people's minds on that score (see Chapter 11). That, of course, took some of the steam out of the drive for suburbanization because for many people the suburbs were where you went to become a homeowner.

Certain other forces may play out in more complicated or arguable ways. The distribution of personal income in the U.S. has been becoming more unequal for several decades. That may shrink the number of households who can afford the traditional suburban lifestyle while at the same time it increased the number of people who can afford to pay a couple of million for a high-rise condo downtown. Why income is becoming less equally distributed is a matter of some uncertainty. The shrinkage of manufacturing employment and the weakening of private sector labor unions have been cited as a cause. So too has been the offshoring of many types of white-collar work. (For several recent editions of this book much of the editorial production such as typesetting was done in India. For earlier editions all of it was done in the U.S.)

The computerization of so much economic activity has greatly increased the productivity and hence the incomes of those people with the right set of skills to take advantage of it. Changes in the financial world have provided huge increases in income for some brokers, traders, investment bankers, and others. But, again, regardless of the causes, the facts are beyond dispute, and it is hard to believe that such an important societywide change will not have some effect on the city-suburb question, even though we cannot nail that effect down precisely at this time.

The geographer Richard Florida writes of the "creative class" (academics, writers, scientists, researchers of various types—people who make their living with higher-level verbal, quantitative, or related skills). He argues that the ability to attract this class determines, more than any other factor, the economic fate of cities. Perhaps, though I can offer no hard evidence for it, this class has a preference for the particular stimuli of the urban life.15

If the above are some of the forces that may be pushing us toward reurbanization, what are the straws in the wind? One is that the 2010 census revealed that poverty rates between 2000 and 2010 rose faster in the suburbs than in the cities. That is a reversal of the trend of the previous several decades and suggests that some major changes may be underway.

Some surveys of younger adults have indicated considerable preference for an urban life. The writer Alan Ehrenhalt cites a poll taken in 2009 of people between the ages of 20 and 35 in which a startling 45 percent said they would like to live in New York City at some time if it were possible.16 Even if you take New York as a metaphor for the urban life in general rather than treating that figure literally, it is still a powerful statement.

In the last several years the percentage of teenagers and people in their early twenties who have driver's licenses has been declining. This reverses a trend that has been in place since Henry Ford began filling the streets with mass-produced Model Ts almost a century ago.

Another straw in the wind is simply the pattern of recent real estate investment. Increasingly, developers report that it is mixed-use development, walkability, and development with an urban feel that sells. This sort of development may be seen at all scales, from perhaps two acres upward. For a very large-scale example see the discussion about Tyson's Corner, VA in Chapter 10.

In a number of cities small hotspots characterized by fine-grained mixed use, very active street life, a young population, and cultural richness are springing up against a much drabber background. The DuPont Circle area of Washington, DC is a delightful place to stroll about, has numerous trendy (and pricey) places to eat, and is filled with young, highly educated, upwardly mobile people. Rents for even the smallest apartments are very high. If you want to know what people want, there is probably no better indicator than what they are willing to pay. Hotspots of reurbanization, whether they be in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Austin, Phoenix, or San Francisco, won't show up in the statistics of an entire city or metropolitan area, but they are unmistakable to the interested observer.

If demand is shifting toward a more urban pattern of development, the response to that shift could take many forms. One response could be central city focused, characterized by gentrification, large-scale redevelopment, and a gradual process in which an affluent, incoming population gradually pushes lower-income people outward. There would be nothing surprising about that. It is, in fact, a pattern in many European cities.

An alternative scenario is that much of the demand for urban environments would be satisfied in the suburbs by spots, small or large, of urban- style development in the larger matrix of the suburbs.

Are those who foresee an age of reurbanization correct? It is too early to say with certainty since, among other things, we will have to wait for a while to be able to separate the transitory effects of the Great Recession from long-term trends.

 
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