'Triumph of suburbia' is a far-fetched story
Joel Kotkin is on a roll in the past few weeks, now making the case that the revival of cities and decline of suburbs is a fraud perpetrated by a long list of elites and urbanists including Edward Glaeser, Richard Florida, Alan Ehrenhalt, Christopher Leinberger, James Howard Kunstler, Peter Katz, and many others. Those he names should feel honored, because he traces what he calls "a hate affair with suburbia" back to Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte.
Kotkin's latest evidence is a report from the Brookings Institution that in 91 of 100 largest US metropolitan areas the share of regional jobs in downtowns declined from 2000 to 2010, while the distant suburbs gained in this category. The report coined the term "job sprawl" to describe the trend.
"A funny thing happened on the way to the long-trumpeted triumph of the city: the suburbs not only survived but have begun to regain their allure as Americans have continued aspiring to single-family homes," Kotkin says.
The cities that bucked the trend were many of the largest metro areas, and the "job sprawl" diminished in the latter part of the decade when sprawl itself slowed to a crawl.
As I pointed out last week when the report came out, this comparison means little because of the method used. Brookings drew a bull's eye around the primary downtown of each metro region and counted jobs within three miles, from three to 10 miles, and from 10 to 25 miles out. The area between 10 and 25 miles of these downtowns is 58 times larger than the core area.
With so much more land — and a greater population and far lower jobs density — it's not surprising that the share of jobs in the outer suburbs rose relative to downtown. Leading up to the housing crash in 2007-2008, there were an awful lot of businesses like Lowe's, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Arby's built in the outer-ring areas. Measured in this way, downtowns will likely continue to decline in share of regional jobs even if there is a modest amount of outward growth of metro areas.
In his analysis, Kotlin ignores many inconvenient facts and trends that don't fit his narrative of an inexorable, historical march to lower density in generation after generation. Real estate values have declined in the automobile-oriented suburbs relative to compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. There's a growing preference for rental housing, and multifamily development has recovered far more quickly than single-family development. Multifamily development has taken on a new character in recent years. In the 1990s it was garden apartments in the suburbs. Now it is being built in urban, transit-served neighborhoods.
Mostly Kotkin ignores, or doesn't understand, that the issue is not single-family versus multifamily, or suburb versus city. It's not even higher density versus lower density. The urban-rural Transect includes a range of walkable places, from suburban to urban core.
The issue is really walkable places versus auto-oriented places. Walkable urban places, which are where the market is trending according to many industry sources including the Urban Land Institute, Emerging Trends in Real Estate, and the National Association of Realtors, can be located downtown, in urban neighborhoods far from downtown, and in the suburbs.
These walkable urban neighborhoods often include single-family houses — but they are also mixed-use, more compact, and better connected than the far suburbs. There's a big difference between a small-lot single-family house in a mixed-use neighborhood and a large-lot house that is isolated in the far suburbs. There's a difference between a strip mall and a main street, an office park and a mixed-use workplace building.
Last week I stayed in a neighborhood called Allentown in Buffalo, New York. The city is a poster child for urban depopulation having lost most of its residents since 1950. But Allentown, which was languishing and down-on-its-heels 25 years ago, is now thriving, and downtown Buffalo is coming back. Allentown is close to downtown, but many walkable neighborhoods far from downtown in the nation's sizable metro areas are thriving, too.
In the Washington, DC, area, for example, a rising share of commercial development is taking place in walkable urban places (WalkUPs), mostly served by transit. The majority of these places are located in the suburbs. These WalkUPs command a 75 percent premium of auto-oriented commercial development, whereas a quarter-century ago, suburban office parks carried the premium. Forty-eight percent of DC commercial development is taking place in WalkUPs, which amount to less than 1 percent of the land area.
Philadelphia, a city that is not one of the "Big 6" real estate markets and is struggling in many ways, is seeing similar trends, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. Compact, urban places, both downtown and in the suburbs, performed better during the Great Recession.
Reading between the lines, Kotkin alludes to a few important trends that urbanists should pay attention to. How to accommodate single-family housing in walkable neighborhoods is something that new urbanists have been working on for three decades. Yet they haven't entirely solved this problem, and some smart growth advocates ignore it completely. We need sustainable single-family housing and Kotkin is right that a large number of Americans prefer a separate house on a lot.
Second, the suburbs are growing more diverse and many immigrants and minorities are moving beyond cities. That's great, but it doesn't mean that the new suburban residents don't also want access to transit and walkability. And this diversity, combined with a trend towards rental housing in subdivisions, may be a double-edged sword for suburbs — which have always sold isolation and exclusivity.
Kotkin will no doubt continue to rail against those he disagrees with, but his attempt to change the narrative is hardly convincing.
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