The 'Burbs Are Back

Promo image. Metropolitan Life ad/ via Envisioning the American Dream

It has been standard TreeHugger trope that the suburbs are dying and all the smart young people want to live downtown and raise little Ginny in a condo on the city instead of a house in the ‘burbs. But now economist Jed Kolko crunches the latest census data and finds:

After volatile swings in growth patterns during last decade’s housing bubble and bust, long-term trends are reasserting themselves. Population is growing faster in the South and West than in the Northeast and Midwest, and faster in suburban areas than in urban counties; both of these trends accelerated in 2015.

growth of burbs

© Jed KolkoSo have we been wrong all these years? Was the trend back downtown just a blip, a phase, a result of demographics and economics? Was Joel Kotkin right when he wrote a few years back:

The millennial ‘flight’ from suburbia has not only been vastly overexaggerated, it fails to deal with what may best be seen as differences in preferences correlated with life stages. People with children tend to avoid urban cores, even in the most gentrified environments.

Except of course those booming cities like San Francisco or Vancouver or New York City or Toronto, where house prices continue to climb. At the same time, incomes have flatlined for most young people. They simply cannot afford to live where they want to live. The fact of the matter is, the suburbs are cheaper.

Jed Kolko tells the Wall Street Journal:

Rich, young people are outbidding others for urban housing and so the faster growth in the suburbs certainly reflects tight housing supply in dense neighborhoods.

And Ben Adler, in his terrific version of this story in Grist, concurs:

The reasons people give up walkable urbanism also vary by city and region. Star cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., often see middle-class families leave for the suburbs because they can’t afford more spacious housing in the city, and the high costs of taxes and child care just add to the problem. Some parents in those cities also also worry about crime and schools — at least in the neighborhoods they can afford to live in


There is another factor in play here, as Chris Mims notes in a tweet:

It’s a double whammy for the environment because beside the gas used for the longer commute, the young people moving to the suburbs are buying bigger cars. Ford’s sales of SUVs are up 16 percent over last year, with most of the growth among the millennial buyers aged 25 to 34.According to InAutoNews,

“It’s an example of need-based growth,” said Erich Merkle, Ford US sales analyst. “Millennials have begun forming families and those families are growing – in terms of the number of children as well as the size of those children.”

Of course the prescription to fix all this is easy: More affordable housing in walkable communities, better transit, better urban schools and higher paying jobs. Like I said, easy.