The Suburbs Are Growing Up

I’ve seen several articles since the Great Recession arguing that the the housing market has fundamentally shifted away from typical suburban “sprawl” and toward cities. People are no longer interested in far flung suburbs, and more interested going back to walkable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods. I think the case is overstated. While I think there is a trend toward more walkable communities, this trend has been ongoing for more than a decade and the densities won’t be high enough to amount to a major shift in land-use patterns.

Typical of this recent thinking on a turnaround in housing preferences is Chris Leinberger’s contribution to the April issue of The Atlantic. The nut of the argument is we’re giving up on the big house on the large lot located on the ex-urban fringe (a tricky term to say the least), and opting for smaller homes on small lots in older cities. Writes Leinberger:

“But this time may be different. As Zillow’s satellite maps begin to indicate, what we face today is not just a cyclical housing problem, but a structural one as well. Over the past decade, most house building occurred on the suburban fringe, in large part because that’s where houses could be built most easily and quickly. But now that the bubble has popped, we can clearly see that underlying demand in these areas is extremely weak, and oversupply is massive.

“Nationwide, houses on the exurban fringes are now generally priced below the cost of the materials that went into building them. That’s usually the first step in the creation of a slum. Owners have no financial incentive to invest in their houses if they will not get that investment back upon resale. Developers have no financial incentive to build in those areas either.

“Urban-style housing in walkable neighborhoods—including those in the inner suburbs—is what’s in demand today. And for a variety of reasons, that demand will intensify in the coming years. Only by serving it can the country kick-start growth in an enormous and essential part of the economy.”

Leinberger continues to argue that cities need to invest in small lot housing, apartments, condominiums, and most of all transit to support the higher density living that is preferred in the post recession new world:

“Housing comes in two basic types. The first is the now-classic Ozzie and Harriet—style single-family house on its own large lot, from which nearly every trip is taken by car. The second is similar to what we predominantly built before the Great Depression: small-lot single-family houses, townhouses, and apartments that are within walking distance of most everyday needs and are typically connected by public transit to work, shopping, and entertainment—housing that is built at least five times more densely than that in conventional suburbs.

“Ten years ago, conventional large-lot housing in wealthy suburbs was the highest-priced housing, per square foot, in nearly all metropolitan areas. Today, housing in walkable neighborhoods is typically the most expensive; the lines crossed in the 2000s.”

I think Leinberger is playing to loosely with these trends and terms–he doesn’t define suburb, ex-urb, urban, or city very well. Most of the examples he cites as evidence of the back to the city, or walkable community, movement, are cities that were the suburbs of their day. They weren’t the central cities.

To the extent we see a back to more urban lifestyles, this really reflects the increasing densification, or the urbanization, of the suburbs. This has been going on for decades. I wrote about these trends in policy reports analyzing land-use strends in Michigan (pp. 11-12) and Ohio (pp. 21-25) a decade ago. For example, in my study of sprawl and land use in Ohio, I noted:

  • “Declines in population and population density at the city level mask increases in population and population density on a regional level. Ohio’s population tripled from just 4.2 million people in 1900 to almost 12 million people in 2000. Ohio’s cities, like urban America more broadly, have been changing to meet shifting desires. Two-thirds of Ohio’s largest metropolitan areas experienced an increase in population density between 1980 and 2000.
  • “The trend in Ohio is toward more dense metropolitan areas and less dense central cities. Rather than abandoning urban life, Ohioans appear to be refocusing it. Suburbs and central cities may well be converging toward an “optimal” density (or an optimal range of densities) that suit households in the 21st Century more effectively than the old model of a high-density, mixed-use core.”

We shouldn’t confuse a retrenchment of the housing market–a normal trend after a severe downturn–with fundamental changes in household aspirations. At the end of the day, the vast majority of households still won’t want to be packed in old-style urban environments with high densities, whether transit is available or not.

Urban form is fluid and dynamic, and static views of what an “optimal” form is should be viewed with skepticism.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.