Are Suburbs Sustainable
Urban Grown outpaces suburban growth
By Walt Seifert
According to census data, urban population growth rates exceeded suburban rates in a majority of the 51 largest U.S. cities from July 2010 to July 2011. Urban growth rates averaged 1.1 percent during the period. The suburban growth rate was .9 percent. Could this be a tipping point marking a permanent change in growth patterns? It’s certainly a dramatic shift from the past. During the previous 10 years, suburban growth had been triple the rate of urban growth. Moreover, overall U.S. suburban growth outpaced urban growth every decade for nearly 100 years. Starting in the 1920s, increased automobile use made longer commutes feasible and spurred suburban development.
The fastest-growing urban area in the country was New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Atlanta, Denver, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C., all had significantly higher growth compared to suburbs. Other big cities with faster urban growth were Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Seattle. Sacramento’s central city growth rate was 1.3 percent, while our suburban area grew at .9 percent.
Though the rate of growth in 27 big-city central areas exceeded the suburban rate, total suburban growth still exceeded urban growth because more people live in suburbs. Still, the change in growth rates is noteworthy.
Many factors affect where growth occurs. While automobile ownership accelerated suburban growth, people’s desires for greenery, yards, good schools, quiet and security also fueled the demand for living in bedroom communities and hastened flight from cities.
Times change. Suburban growth created its own set of conditions that some now seek to escape. Cookie-cutter suburbs can be havens of blandness. Longer commutes increase one’s chances of spending unproductive hours stuck in traffic. Higher gas prices make drivers think about the financial ramifications of longer commutes.
Inner cities have changed. Many have become more livable. There are fewer dirty heavy industries in city cores. Spruced-up central business areas offer low-maintenance apartments and condos, entertainment, restaurants, shopping, museums and less car dependence.
Some economists suggest that the recent dip in suburban growth may be fleeting, an aftermath to the recession. Urban areas have long been attractive to the childless young and empty nesters, while suburban areas have traditionally been more appealing to young families with children. Tough economic times slowed formation of new families and created uncertainties about the value of suburban homeownership—so more young people are staying in cities. Some observers have dubbed people ages 18 to 29 “Generation Rent.” Further, there’s evidence of a cultural shift away from driving. Younger people have shown an increasing propensity to spurn getting a driver’s license.
The financial and housing meltdown has created a slowdown in residential construction and new development. Locally, not much is being built either downtown or in suburban areas. The pause offers developers and residents time to consider what makes for desirable locations and styles of future growth. Sacramento already has some unique opportunities to grow smartly. It is poised for serious urban growth. The downtown railyards have been called the biggest infill development site in the country. Just across the river and south of Raley Field, West Sacramento’s Bridge District has had extensive infrastructure work completed. At the Curtis Park railyards, decontaminated soil has been removed. Township 9, along the American River and north of the downtown railyards, sports a new light rail station and promises to provide 2,500 housing units plus retail and office space.
Even in Sacramento, not all urban growth can occur on empty infill sites that limit spillover effects. Some urban growth will require building up, not out, and will increase population density in existing neighborhoods. Whether this growth will be welcomed, accepted or opposed will depend on how residents perceive the quality of the growth and whether the growth promises to bring more amenities to neighborhoods along with more people. If more parks, shopping, cultural and social opportunities come with growth, acceptance will be far easier.
Suburbs are a relatively novel way for mankind to live. They take up a lot of space, including valuable farmland, use more energy, result in more travel and require large investments in costly infrastructure such as sewer systems and water supplies. Their sustainability is suspect. Will suburbs regain growth dominance or will cities continue to pick up steam? It’s not yet possible to judge whether recent growth experience is an aberration or the start of a lasting trend.