Suburbs, not urban areas, drive cities??? growth

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The massive exodus of people from rural areas to urban areas over the past 200 years has been called the ???great urbanization.??? For two centuries, people have been leaving rural areas to live in cities.

However, most of this growth has not taken place close to city centers, but rather on or beyond the urban fringe, in the suburbs and exurbs.

The preponderance of suburban growth is evident in high-income metropolitan areas around the world. For decades, nearly all growth in nearly all cities has been in the suburbs.

Some notable examples are London, Portland, San Francisco, Seoul, Tokyo, Toronto, and Zürich. The dominance of suburban growth is also evident in the major cities of the less developed world, such as Cairo, Jakarta, Manila, and Sao Paulo.

In a December 6, 2014 essay about global trends in urban and suburban growth, The Economist notes New York University geographer Shlomo Angel???s studies of metropolitan population density.

Almost every city Angel has studied is becoming less dense. Contrary to the popular perception of increasing densities, Angel???s research has determined cities become less dense as they add more population.

This finding extends even to cities with low average incomes, such as Addis Abeba, in Ethiopia. Addis Abeba???s population has increased more than 250 percent since the mid-1970s, but urban population density has declined more than 70 percent.


In the United States, more than half of Americans live in suburbs. In fact, this statistic may be underestimated, due to the misclassification of ???principal cities??? as an urban core. Many principal cities are actually suburban in nature.

In 2000, the United States Office of Management and Budget established the ???principal cities??? designation, to replace the classification of municipalities as ???central cities??? or suburbs.

The absurdity of using ???principal cities??? as a synonym for ???central cities??? is illustrated by the broad expanses of post-1950 suburbanization now classified as core cities. New York and Chicago have been placed in the same demographic category as Hoffman Estates IL, or Mesa, AZ.

In fact, more than 85 percent of major metropolitan area residents, containing over 1 million people, live in areas that are functionally suburban or exurban. Employment patterns in U.S. metropolitan areas have since become polycentric, with suburban employment centers.

Urban core growth rates have increased since 2010, which is an encouraging economic sign. Yet, core city jurisdictions account for less than 30 percent of metropolitan area growth. However, there are some obstacles to the continuance of this long overdue improvement.

For example, keeping young families as they raise children in core city areas will be difficult, until government takes on the politically challenging task of school reform.

Also, the economic effects of large government employee pension obligations on core cities are likely to drive residents to nearby suburbs, suggesting the necessity of cutting services or raising taxes.

???No number of trams, coffee shops or urban hipsters will save cities that slip into this whirlpool,??? the Economistessay quips.

Limiting Sprawl, Limiting Opportunity

The Economist essay is refreshingly direct in its characterization of attempts to stop urban spatial expansion.

???Suburbs rarely cease growing of their own accord,??? the essay explains. ???The only reliable way to stop them, it turns out, is to stop them forcefully. But the consequences of doing that are severe.???

Chronicling the experience of London, with its ???greenbelt??? urban growth boundary, the essay concludes ???London has almost no modern suburban houses and very high property prices,??? because of the greenbelt policy.

Higher house prices and lower discretionary incomes are not a problem limited to London. Among the 85 major metropolitan areas covered in the 10th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, all 24 of those with ???severely unaffordable??? housing have London-style land-use regulation or similar land use restrictions.

These financial reverses, however, are not limited to suburban households, since urban containment policies are associated with substantial house price increases in urban cores as much as in suburbs.