Evidence of the Great Congealing

Chicken stock.  Thickening upon standing, just like our suburbs will.  Source: kitchenkonfidence.com

Came across something pretty interesting last week.  Payton Chung, writing in Greater Greater Washington, said that “peak sprawl” happened in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, and has decreased by one-third since then.  He lays it out here:

According to the USDA’s 2010 National Resources Inventory, which tracks land use with satellite imaging surveys, the inflection point for suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s, just as “smart growth” emerged onto the national scene. That’s before the giant housing bubble showered suburbs with seemingly limitless sums of capital.

It’s been slowing ever since then, even though metro population growth moderated only slightly (see graphs on page 3). Interestingly, non-metro population growth (including distant exurbs beyond metro area boundaries) in the 2000s fell much faster than metro population growth.

I haven’t delved into the data, but I have no reason to doubt the findings.  The same database was used in the mid-’90s by the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago to demonstrate that the Chicago metro area, which gained only 4 percent in population between 1970 and 1990, still expanded its land coverage by 46 percent.

Chung offers a reason in his piece:

 It’s interesting that the slowdown in sprawl, like the slowdown in mall construction,predated “peak car” by 10-15 years. The directionality might be backwards: the 1980s cessation of massive freeway construction may have pushed many metro areas into some version of Marchetti’s Wall: the theory that people don’t want to travel more than one hour a day, and thus that metropolitan growth has geometric limits tied to how far the predominant mode of travel goes.

This is a rationale I completely agree with.  The Interstate Highway System, the principal fuel for sprawl, was effectively completed by the early ’90s.  While there have been incremental additions to it over the years, large areas of potential suburbia have not been opened up over the last twenty years as in previous decades.  Also, I think there’s a great deal of validity to the Marchetti’s Wall theory: there are time limits to how far people generally will travel for work, shopping and other activities.  Unless there is a change in our transportation system, we’ve pretty much reached those limits.  (On a related note: projects like the the Illiana Expressway, written about recently by Aaron Renn, face an uphill battle because they operate on a previous growth model).

So what does this mean?  Again, barring huge transportation and technological advances that move people faster, I think we’re headed for greater density development in suburbia, since access to greenfields won’t come as easily in the future.  Or, as I said here before, perhaps the Great Congealing has begun:

What I believe will happen is that perceived differences between “city” and “suburb” will begin to disappear.  Suburbs will introduce more housing types than conventional single-family homes, to attract a more diverse group of residents.  Edge cities will become more walkable.  Downtowns and town centers will emerge where currently none exist.  They’ll have to respond to the aging of their residents and the needs they have.  Similarly, cities will continue to attract young, educated and affluent residents who will be attracted to the inherent adaptability of cities – their transit networks, mix of housing types, job centers, and amenities. 

On the surface, in many places it will appear as the “city” is gaining as the “suburbs” are losing.  However, the truth will be that there will be greater economic and social balance between the two, and that both will begin to look more similar than dissimilar.  To me, this is a positive.  I see this as a trend that will accelerate after 2020. 

On a related note, I hope that what transpires over the next 20 years or so puts an end to the density/sprawl arguments we have today.  On one side we have the density apologists who say density spurs innovation and creativity; on the other side we have sprawl apologists who argue that conventional single-family home living is the demonstrated preference of the majority of Americans and a strong economy will bear that out.  It’s as if the debate is solely over 30-story condo towers or five-acre estates.

If I were to put on my future goggles, I’d guess that middle density development types are what will prosper in the next couple decades — townhouses, 2-4 unit structures, mixed-use buildings — interspersed with the kind of single-family development that many do prefer.  In fact, I’d wager that the metros that integrate this into their development framework best will likely do better than those that don’t.

We’ll see.

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