I’ve been reading predictions of the imminent demise of the suburbs for nearly 50 years.
This past weekend the New York Times devoted two big op-eds to the decline of the suburb. In one, new urban theorist Chris Leinberger said that Americans were increasingly abandoning “fringe suburbs” for dense, transit-oriented urban areas. In the other, UC Berkeley professor Louise Mozingo called for the demise of the “suburban office building” and the adoption of policies that will drive jobs away from the fringe and back to the urban core.
Perhaps no theology more grips the nation’s mainstream media — and the planning community — more than the notion of inevitable suburban decline. The Obama administration’s housing secretary, Shaun Donavan, recently claimed, “We’ve reached the limits of suburban development: People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities.”
Yet repeating a mantra incessantly does not make it true. Indeed, any analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census would make perfectly clear that rather than heading for density, Americans are voting with their feet in the opposite direction: toward the outer sections of the metropolis and to smaller, less dense cities. During the 2000s, the Census shows, just 8.6% of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs. That 8.6% represents a decline from the 1990s, when the figure was 15.4%.
In fact the media reports about the “death” of fringe suburbs seem to be more a matter of wishful thinking than fact. If the new urbanists want to do something useful, they might apply themselves by helping these peripheral places of aspiration evolve successfully. That’s far more constructive than endlessly insisting on — or trying to legislate — their inevitable demise.