Long Live The Suburbs: Downtown Urban Growth May Be Overstated

Posted by Stu Niebergall on 2016-12-10 12:00 AM

It is not uncommon for many in the urban-centric world to suggest that the urban downtown centers are and will be creative incubators that generate a city’s new growth and are the only vehicle to attract young affluent professionals who desire an urban lifestyle above all other choices. Several urban planning experts often go on to suggest the resurgence of urban centers and neighborhoods directly connected to those urban centers will continue to grow as suburbs decline. This theme is based on the simple idea that millennials and newcomers to a city find the peripheral edges of the city less desirable to live. Many urban-centric public policy makers use this bias to create and support some form of urban containment strategies when it comes to city building.

This week’s Wall Street Journal headline “Suburbs Outstrip Cities in Population Growth” may suggest that like so many things of recent, individual or citizen behavior may align more with market interest than urban planning ideology. While renewed urbanism of downtowns and urban containment strategies have received much of the attention when it comes to city building, the data is clearly showing that growth on the peripheral areas of North America’s cities are doing more than holding their own.

The Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, which looks at population trends and housing, released their latest study this past Monday. The study clearly demonstrated that suburbs are continuing to outstrip urban cores in overall population growth, diversity and attracting younger residents.

Some of the key findings of this US study were “from 2000 to 2015, suburban areas accounted for 91% of population growth and 84% of household growth in the top 50 metro areas”. The suburbs also accounted for a higher job growth at 9% when compared to the urban core of 6%. I would suspect there are additional factors to explain the other findings like that three quarters of the population between 25 and 34-years-old in the 50 largest metro areas live in the suburbs. The fact is suburbs are “young” compared with their urban core counterparts.

In addition, the study found that “suburbs as a whole are racially and ethnically diverse” and “a growing number of recent immigrants choose to live in the suburbs”. Why wouldn’t they, newcomers to a community, desire the same things the established population desire, an affordable place to live, good schools, greenspace and parks, safety, accessibility to jobs and a transportation network that connects them to all parts of the city.

The study also concluded that the percentage of workers driving alone to work is similar in the wide range of suburbs and cities. “Despite differences in access to transit, which is generally better in established neighborhoods,” citizens continue to prefer individual autonomy in moving through the city than public policy desire for greater public transit usage. The fact is, most of us complain about traffic and congestion, but the reality is, technology has made it even more practical to live farther from the urban core and will continue to do so.

I think the Urban Land Institute study findings and other empirical evidence to support these trends is intuitive. Although the higher-income millennials who live in walkable transit friendly central city locations have received considerable media and business marketing attention, much of the generation needs to live in areas that are more affordable. The clear majority of new young families and individuals who are starting out or are newcomers to our communities need housing affordability. Since most cities make it onerous and inefficient to build new housing in the existing city footprint, housing affordability can often be more easily accessed in the new greenfield neighborhoods.

If you are young and without kids, the urban core will work great. However, we need to recognize that this does not serve most of a growing population’s needs or wants, particularly those growing families and multigenerational families. Space and affordability is what is needed and desired, but it is difficult to retrofit urban cores that were simply not engineered for that.

This trend to the peripheral neighborhoods of the city will most likely continue in years to come, as new greenfield developments continue to evolve and become more urban, with walkability to restaurants, stores and other conveniences, combined where possible with access to good transit.

So long live the suburbs, it is and will be where most of us call home.