Are cities the fu­ture of sub­urbs?

Sub­urbs are grow­ing denser, and plan­ners now see many ur­ban ar­eas as a col­lec­tion of cities, writes colum­nist

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Forum - NOAH SMITH

Ire­cently had a dis­cus­sion with my Bloomberg View col­leagues Conor Sen and Justin Fox about whether cities or sub­urbs are the fu­ture in the United States. This turns out to be a popular and con­tentious topic. Richard Florida, the noted ur­ban­ist and for­mer Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity pro­fes­sor, re­cently be­moaned the death of the great ur­ban re­vival that saw young Amer­i­cans flock­ing to city cen­ters dur­ing the first 15 years of the cen­tury.

This is cer­tainly worth wor­ry­ing about. Th­ese trends aren’t just im­por­tant for real es­tate spec­u­la­tors — they af­fect the eco­nomic per­for­mance of the en­tire nation. Cities are amaz­ing gen­er­a­tors of pro­duc­tiv­ity, for a num­ber of rea­sons. First, they al­low com­pa­nies to lo­cate close to their work­ers, and con­sumers to live near to the com­pa­nies they buy from — a process known as ag­glom­er­a­tion. Se­cond, cities clus­ter a bunch of smart peo­ple to­gether, al­low­ing knowl­edge and ideas to flow freely among com­pa­nies and com­bine to in­spire new in­no­va­tions.

So if, as Mr. Florida and many oth­ers fear, cities are keep­ing peo­ple out by lim­it­ing the sup­ply of hous­ing, the United States could be in trou­ble. Con­strain­ing the num­ber of peo­ple — es­pe­cially knowl­edge work­ers — who can live in ur­ban cores could choke off pro­duc­tiv­ity growth. That’s bad for ev­ery­one.

But be­fore de­spair­ing, we should think a lit­tle harder about what’s re­ally go­ing on. The phe­nom­e­non of cities lock­ing peo­ple out by driv­ing up rents is very real (as a San Fran­cisco res­i­dent, I should know). But else­where, the move to the sub­urbs may not be as sub­ur­ban as peo­ple are claim­ing.

The whole no­tion of “city” ver­sus “sub­urb” is based on the way the world looked dur­ing the first part of the 20th cen­tury. Jobs were clus­tered in dense ur­ban cores. Peo­ple would live in the res­i­den­tial rings sur­round­ing the city, and com­mute in to work. The sub­urbs were “sub“be­cause they de­pended eco­nom­i­cally on the city.

This pat­tern was re­flected in econ­o­mists’ mod­els of cities. But in the 1980s, ur­ban econ­o­mists be­gan to re­al­ize that cities didn’t have to be shaped like a se­ries of con­cen­tric rings. New poly­cen­tric mod­els re­flected the fact that what we call a city — greater Hous­ton or greater Los An­ge­les — could in fact be a se­ries of smaller cities, all trad­ing with each other in close prox­im­ity, with com­mut­ing zones and hous­ing mar­kets that over­lapped. Re­searchers found that by the year 2000, most Amer­i­can cities fit this model bet­ter — jobs were no longer clus­tered tightly in a cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict, but dis­persed through­out sprawl­ing

metropoli­tan ar­eas.

The new, dis­persed pat­tern of de­vel­op­ment makes it very hard to sep­a­rate city from sub­urb. If you live in Red­wood City — tra­di­tion­ally con­sid­ered a sub­urb of San Fran­cisco — and work in a startup there, are you sub­ur­ban or ur­ban? The bound­aries of ex­ist­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties aren’t much help in mak­ing this dis­tinc­tion.

Jed Kolko, chief econ­o­mist at the jobs web­site In­deed, has tried to dif­fer­en­ti­ate ur­ban and sub­ur­ban ar­eas by look­ing at pop­u­la­tion den­sity. In an ex­cel­lent piece for FiveThir­tyEight, he shows that this paints a more nu­anced pic­ture of liv­ing trends inthe United States.

Some very dense cities, like Seattle, are still grow­ing rapidly — pos­si­bly be­cause Seattle chose to build more hous­ing than other tech­nol­ogy hubs. But for the most part, Amer­i­cans are now mov­ing to cities such as San Diego, Phoenix, San An­to­nio, Dal­las and Hous­ton that have a lot more low-den­sity neigh­bor­hoods. On his blog, Mr. Kolko sup­ports this con­clu­sion with data, show­ing that sub­ur­ban coun­ties are out­pac­ing ur­ban ones.

So, while growth rates are closer now than dur­ing the early and mid-2000s, sub­ur­ban ar­eas are still grow­ing faster.

But this anal­y­sis also misses some­thing im­por­tant. Th­ese trends don’t just rep­re­sent peo­ple’s mov­ing de­ci­sions — they also rep­re­sent changes in the places them­selves. If enough peo­ple move to a low-den­sity area, it be­comes a high-den­sity area.

Peo­ple are pour­ing into Dal­las and San Diego. There­fore, un­less those cities con­tinue to sprawl ever far­ther out across the coun­try­side, the new ar­rivals will in­crease den­sity. Peo­ple will want to live close to their jobs in­stead of en­dur­ing hour-long com­mutes. Apart­ment blocks will spring up where once-empty fields or sin­gle-fam­ily homes stood. To­day’s fast-grow­ing sub­urb is to­mor­row’s ur­ban area.

In other words, the great ur­ban re­vival might not be end­ing, it might just be re­lo­cat­ing. In­stead of pil­ing into ex­ist­ing cores, Amer­i­cans might sim­ply be cre­at­ing new ones across the coun­try. And if each of th­ese new cities cre­ates the pro­duc­tiv­ity ad­van­tages en­joyed by places like San Fran­cisco and New York City, this could be a good thing for the econ­omy.

Of course, this all de­pends on trends in tech­nol­ogy. If telecom­mut­ing gains wide­spread ac­cep­tance, or if self­driv­ing cars al­low peo­ple to en­dure longer com­mutes, cities might start to sprawl out much more. But for now, the ur­ban­iza­tion of Amer­ica will live on in the cities of the Sun Belt.

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