Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Infographic: Sprawl Is Alive and Well

The Atlantic Cities had an article talking about how the housing crash may not have been a game changer in terms of exurban development pattern. It’s worth a read. It also includes this map from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard showing various degrees of suburbanization by metros over the past decade. Not that only a few places showed core population share gain.

Topics: Demographic Analysis


23 Responses to “Infographic: Sprawl Is Alive and Well”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    “Core cities” is the problem. Some are tiny parts of their metros and others sprawl out to include half their metros. St. Louis and Cincinnati are tiny compared to their metros while Columbus sprawls to include corn fields. Without defining these terms, this means little.

  2. AIM says:

    This is anecdotal but I can say that here in Michigan, housing is starting to heat up again in the higher-end suburbs. We’re also seeing new commercial development too. These aren’t exurban areas but I think in the more desirable suburban communities, there continues to be demand for suburban living.

  3. Geof Andrews says:

    Some core cities cover a large area, much of it low density sprawl. Many “suburbs” themselves have a dense, compact central core. This study may not be accurate in measuring sprawl.

  4. Josh Lapp says:

    I think the map is fairly misleading as it measures changes from 2000-2010. I’m not sure that the cores really bottomed out until maybe 2003-2005. I’ve read numerous reports of more recent data that suggests that the above data may not reflect current trends.

  5. random guy says:

    I think that first ring suburbs (and sometimes second ring) should be included in a lot of these core city studies. Like Mattehew said above core cities in older metros are stuck to the geographic size that they are due to being totally surrounded. I doubt that st louis, houstin, minneaplis-stpaul,atlanta, etc, will ever be able to annex any more land.

    Increasing density in the core city is a very slow and complex process, in the nice areas the established home owners will fight it, and nobody wants to spend good money to build multi level dwelling in a bad neighborhood.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    What this obscures is that growth in most old cities follows a U-shaped pattern: high in the gentrifying core (or perhaps its edges in cities with more mature gentrification), low in outer-urban neighborhood and most suburbia, high in the exurbs. I have no per-neighborhood growth numbers for the 2000s, but in the 1990s, when the trend was already in existence, the fastest-growing parts of Greater New York were Pike County and Lower Manhattan.

  7. Some of these comments are fair enough, yet I notice that urban supporters seem to never bring them up when citing data that is positive to cities. The caveats all seem to disappear then.

    The cold reality is that most people want to live in a single family detached home. Suburbia is going to be the place most people continue to seek that. I do believe we can have a much more prosperous and populated urban cores, but it isn’t realistic to believe that people are going to wholesale move back into the city.

  8. But Aaron, in my city (St. Petersburg, FL, which is shown to have enjoyed a very small increase in population share on this map), detached single-family is by far the dominant housing type. I suspect that in most core cities on that map, the same thing is true.

    Your comment suggests that the difference between urban cores and suburbs is the availability of the single-family detached home. That’s only true in a few cities in this country, at most. In many places, cities and suburbs are much harder to delineate, because they can – except at the extremes – look very similar.

    If you really want to draw a comparison between what’s happening in the urban core and what’s happening in the suburbs, you can’t use statistics that apply to the city as a whole. You’ve got to separate out the “core” Census tracts from neighborhoods that are more similar to than different from suburbs. Of course, most writers aren’t able to do this, because they aren’t familiar with where the urban cores of these cities actually are.

    I agree with your point that a lot of urban supporters overlook the intricacies and implications of data when it suits them to do so. But that doesn’t mean this map has anywhere near the utility you’re suggesting it does.

  9. Matthew Hall says:

    Most people want a million dollars and a beach house in Malibu, too. It isn’t what people want, but what they and society can afford. People choose from what exists, not an ideal and perfect market. People may want single family houses for a hundred reasons that are not connected to the inherent characteristics of single family houses themselves at all. Most americans do not have an ideological, unyielding, total devotion to single family houses at all costs. They choose within a massively subsidized and regulated market. Mortgage interest deductions, non-tolled highways, a minefield of zoning laws and the nature of local govn’t all affect individuals “choices”.

  10. Brett says:

    It’s probably true that most people with young children want a single-family detached house. However, it would be interesting to see if the percentage of those people who want that type of house has changed over time. Are there any long-term surveys out there that indicate whether people’s stated preference has changed?

    I’m not sure that is true that most single people or people whose children have left home want a single-family house. I personally don’t see evidence of that.

    I think other commenters noted the date range of the data is 2000-2010. I’m not sure how that is enough data to indicate the effects of the housing crash on sprawl.

    This article about latest Census data indicates Chicago is growing again, although it may be because people are stuck (an effect of the housing crash!),0,1203870.story
    Also, Chicago’s growth is on par with the suburbs, which you could interpret to mean that sprawl is moderating. But I kind of wonder if we are going to get a baby boom when the economy finally improves.

  11. aim says:

    “The cold reality is that most people want to live in a single family detached home.”

    I think this is true but it didn’t help Detroit which has thousands of abandoned single family detached homes.

  12. Daniel N says:

    “The cold reality is that most people want to live in a single family detached home.”

    Surveys also indicate that most people would prefer a BMW over a Toyota. I propose we direct national, state, and local policies toward the promotion of BMW production, because that’s clearly what the people want.

    Or we can just recognize that consumers are perfectly capable of measuring trade-offs between different values, such as a detached SF home on a large lot versus a modest home in walkable neighborhood near their job. In the real world, most of us must choose between these options.

    The interesting question is not what people say they value, but what they are willing to give up to achieve the stated preference.

  13. Right, except that the core city neighborhoods tend to be more expensive, at least where the building stock is in good shape and there are other desirable characteristics. People didn’t move to the exurbs because they wanted to be far out, they did it because the established suburbs where more expensive (e.g., Oswego vs. Lisle or Grayslake vs. Northbrook).

  14. jbcmh81 says:

    Looking over the recently released 2011 population estimates, I noticed, at least for my hometown of Columbus, that almost all of the urban core areas that lost population 2000-2010 showed growth the past year. Estimates are tricky and not to be taken as gospel, but if nothing else, they indicate trends. The suburbs are not going to go away, and I think anyone who seriously pushed that idea were naive. However, that doesn’t mean that the suburbs can’t be built more densely with more walkability in mind instead of the unplanned sprawl that has taken place for several decades. That seems to be the largest change of the housing crash, rather than the fulfillment of the end of suburbia. Also, the urban core in most cities are clearly seeing a resurgence. The core coming back and the suburban life surviving do not have to be mutually exclusive, and indeed, indications are they are happening at the same time.

  15. jbcmh81 says:

    And Aaron, the suburbs were inexpensive because they were largely subsidized. Developers built in the middle of cornfields and then demanded cities provided roads and services to them, raisting costs for everyone. The return on investment of a dense, urban avenue is many times that of a suburban road with low-density single-family homes. This has been a disastrous way to build, and while the suburbs will survive okay, I wonder if people really have not learned anything from the past 5 years (or past 5 decades).

  16. Alon Levy says:

    City neighborhoods are expensive because of demand, not because of construction costs.

  17. James says:

    Do I really have to point out that 2000-2010 includes most of the housing bubble? In recent years growth of exurban areas has slowed to a crawl. See here:

    You know what they say, garbage in garbage out.

  18. BTW: How many of the folks trumpeting the new census municipal estimates have added any of these caveats to them? Virtually none.

    I’m amazed how quickly the Census Bureau has gone back from goat to hero.

  19. Chris Barnett says:

    “City neighborhood” means something entirely different on the East Coast, and in Chicago and SF than in most of the rest of the US. Here in flyover country, a city neighborhood most likely consists of older single family homes on 40 or 50-foot wide city lots.

    I have lived within the “old city” limits of Indianapolis (its pre-1950 urban core) for nearly 30 years. I’ve lived in single-family detached houses virtually all that time, none of which was built after 1946.

    One cannot use “city” as shorthand for attached/multifamily housing, nor “suburb” for detached single-family housing in the vast majority of the US.

    So let’s address “old city” neighborhoods, largely built 1900-1930. For the most part, these were “streetcar suburban” developments, the beginnings of sprawl, early in the evolution of the use of zoning to separate residential from industrial and commercial uses. In Indianapolis, the standard city lot was 40 feet wide…and “big yards” were on streets with 40×250 (

  20. Chris Barnett says:

    Oops. Sent too soon.

    …40×250 (quarter-acre) lots.

    Today we call these “urban” neighborhoods and focus a lot of redevelopment attention there. But the housing is largely obsolete, in the functional sense.

    (These early suburban neighborhoods were built before the day of urban highways what other commenters call hidden subsidies. Developers or homeowners paid assessments for paved streets, sewers, and sidewalks. Even then…people wanted out of the dirty, noisy city.)

    With regard to interior space: Homebuyers today generally want open connected space (as opposed to separate living-dining-kitchen arrangements), volume (9-foot ceilings), tight windows, dry basements, 2.5-car garages/off-street parking and energy-efficiency. The typical bungalow, Tudor, or four-square in an old city neighborhood requires a lot of modification to meet these standards.

    Except in highly desirable areas (favored quarter), it’s hard to justify the required level of renovation reinvestment necessary to make a livable modern house out of an old one. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

    This, in a gross way, accounts for abandonment and edge development: people want newer and better and cheaper.

  21. jbcmh81 says:

    Aaron, I read the article and there are good points made about a return, at least in part, to the resurgence of suburbia. However, I think the article missed the point in some aspects. I think most urbanists understand that an entire metro population is not going to be able to move to the urban core of their respective cities. Even NYC or San Francisco, two of the US’ densist cities, still have the majority of their metro populations located in the suburbs. That will likely always be true. The question really is, does a resurgence of the suburbs mean that the renewed urban movement has to end? Obviously, to me anyway, the answer is no and probably won’t. Changing demographics nationally signal that, even if we had never had the recession and housing crash, changes would’ve taken place eventually anyway. Long-term trends take time to develop and it’s only been 5 years since the housing market crashed, and it will probably take several more years to see how migration trends shake out. I do believe that the urban movement is likely here to stay. Not necessarily at the expense of suburbia, but certainly in compliment to it.

  22. MetroCard says:

    Chris, I have a simple rule of thumb when it comes to delineating cities and suburbs:

    If your garage faces an alley, you live in the city. If it faces the street, you’re probably in the ‘burbs.

  23. John says:

    This seems to conflate the terms outward growth and sprawl. Sprawl is not any outward growth, which is an inevitability of a growing population in a region. Sprawl is segregated land uses and urban form that makes any alternatives to the personal automobile impractical for most trips. This tells us nothing about whether or not the urban form of the growth outside the core cities is the same as before the housing crash or not.

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