Friday, July 6, 2012

The Changing Location of New Housing – Part 2

Before the holiday philosophy break, the topic was whether more new post-recession housing will be built in urban or suburban settings.   It’s a topic on which many have entered the discussion, and on which I have my own thoughts, so we’ll chew on it for another post or two.  Or three.

To recap Part 1, the Housing Commission at the Bipartisan Policy Center suggested that social changes would drive more residents toward city centers.

However, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies saw it differently, arguing that the post-recession development pattern would most likely be similar to the pre-recession pattern.

To further muddy the waters, Atlantic Cities also read the Joint Center report and found different insights, questioning an aspect of the report methodology and highlighting the research director’s comment that the results could be very different with some land-use policy changes.

With that summary in mind, let’s see where else the discussion has gone.

My favorite blogger, Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council, mostly agreed with the Bipartisan Policy Center.  He argued that a movement of people toward cities was underway before the recession and was being largely driven by demographics.  He noted that the prime suburban demographic, families with children, is declining and that more seniors are interested in downtown life.

In a key point, he notes that home prices near urban cores have increased even during the recession, while home prices in the exurbs have plummeted, showing relative market demand.

To buttress his position, Benfield linked a post he wrote in 2009.  He had reported on an EPA study in which central cities were gaining greater share of regional building permits.  The key study data was from 2007, so provided a snapshot of where the land-use patterns were just before the recession.   In the 2009 post, Benfield argued that the EPA study challenged the assumption that growth will occur at metropolitan regardless of land-use policies.

And then Atlantic Cities added fuel to the debate, reporting updated information from the U.S. Census in which the population growth in cities between July 2010 and July 2011 was 1.1 percent, compared to 0.9 percent in suburbs.  The data fit perfectly with all those who were arguing that a move into cities was underway.  (With this report, the topic of the discussion moved from new homes to population movement, but the two are generally related.)

Time also reported the Census data, speculating that the move toward urban cores was the result of the economy, with more young adults deferring home purchases.  As supporting data, they noted that number of young drivers is declining, indicated a cultural change that leans toward urbanism.  (In other forums, it has been suggested that the American love affair with the car is fading, with the first smart phone replacing the first car as a symbol of adulthood.) 

Lastly, Time reported that the last time cities outgained suburbs was before 1920 and that the trend seemed strong enough that developers are betting on it continuing.

Atlantic (the parent of Atlantic Cities, but with a broader editorial focus) mapped the downtown growth in major metropolitan areas. The writer, Derek Thompson, detected a possibility that the relative growth of cities over suburbs was greatest where business productivity is highest, making a connection between economic vitality and downtown vitality.  He also suggested that downtown living was more likely to be solitary living and that improving entertainment technology was making living alone more palatable.

Even local papers joined in, with the Columbus Dispatch using the Census data as an excuse to talk about the increased liveliness in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

Grist was perhaps the only naysayer, noting that the suburban population was so much greater than the city population that, even with a slight percentage advantage to cities, the total population growth was still greater in the suburbs.

So, with all this informed commentary about the Census data, it came as a surprise when Urbanophile allowed the Nullspace blogger to write a guest blog.  The writer, Chris Briem, pointed out a footnote to Census report which undermined the conclusions about urban/suburban growth.  For the 2011 update, population growth was measured on a regional basis and then proportioned between urban and suburban areas.  There was no data that supported a relatively greater urban growth.

So, did the urbanist community spend a week chasing its non-existent tail?  Well, yes.  But I’ll argue that the exercise was still worthwhile.  The Census data doesn’t disprove the move to urban settings.  It didn’t provide any insights either way.  In the absence of any insight from that source, what do we have?  The most credible remaining source is probably the EPA study, which reaches the same conclusion that everyone thought the Census data had reached.

So perhaps the urbanist community was guilty of not reading footnotes, but they nonetheless seemed to be reading the tea leaves of urban change with good insight.

Next time, we’ll look at the distinction between urban and suburban.  Perhaps it‘s not as important as we might think.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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