The Economist on Suburbs and how the back-to-the-city hype is a bit wrong

One of my wonderful students, Jeff Khau, sent around this long essay on Planet of Suburbs from the Economist, and while I have a love/hate relationship with the Economist and its ‘commenting’ rather than reporting on urbanism, this piece is really worth reading if you have any interest in urbanism and metropolitan regions. It’s a nice discussion of what we numbers-oriented types have maintained for some time: that while central cities and downtowns are growing (and that’s a good thing), it probably doesn’t warrant the triumphant tone it gets from various and sundry urbanists.

Even there however, we should cautious with our conclusions. Looking at relative growth percentages, particularly when you are dealing with a) differently sized population bases and b) different geographic areas. Sure, it’s possible that suburb X grew by 49 percent and downtown only grew by 3 percent, but if (a) is big in downtown and small in the suburb, the suburb could be adding much fewer people. As it happens, there are suburbs with quite a few people in them, so in some instances, the growth in absolute terms of a lower percentage may exceed the higher percentage. That’s a pretty straightforward problem in measuring urban growth.

And there are a fair numbers of both populous and urban suburbs out there, and many of those are flourishing, right along with traditional suburb-y suburbs that sit there behind gates. The numbers are the numbers to some degree.

One nice highlight is on Shlomo Angel’s terrific work on sprawl:

Just how powerful and widespread this centrifugal trend will be is suggested by the work of Shlomo Angel, a geographer at New York University. By using satellite images, old maps and population data, Mr Angel has run a ruler over some 3,600 metropolitan areas. He finds that, with few exceptions, they are less dense in wealthier countries (see map). Paris is less than one-third as densely populated as Cairo and barely one-seventh as dense as Mumbai. Even rich cities that seem packed are sparsely populated compared with poorer ones. Tokyo is only one-fifth as densely populated as Dhaka, for example.

As a link, Angel has two very nice books: Planet of Cities and The Atlas of Urban Expansion, both of which deal with these themes.

And I love to see this problem discussed even though it is terrifying:

Years of vote-winning giveaways to police officers and firemen, combined with unrealistic predictions of stockmarket returns, have left some cities with giant holes in their pension funds. Chicago’s unfunded liabilities work out to $18,596 per inhabitant, according to Morningstar Municipal Credit Research; New York’s amount to $9,842. To fill these holes, cities must either prune services or raise taxes. Both answers were likely to drive residents to nearby suburbs, making the problem worse. No number of trams, coffee shops or urban hipsters will save cities that slip into this whirlpool.


Oh boy.

And this last bit:

Elsewhere in America, too, suburbs are being given a dab of urbanity. Mountain View in Silicon Valley—home of Google—is trying to create a modest downtown. The highly successful Research Triangle Park in North Carolina is to build a small urban core, with cafés and small offices intended to entice startups. In southern California, the developer Rick Caruso builds open-air shopping centres that emulate old-world city centres, only with musical fountains.

This sort of thing might strike urbanites as laughably ersatz. But they might consider how their own neighbourhoods have changed. The inhabitants of Greenwich Village in New York or Islington in London live in places much less densely populated than a few decades ago, and containing fewer poor people. Old cities, like suburbs, are increasingly oriented around shopping centres. Leeds city centre has been transformed by a new mall; so has Stratford, in London’s East End. Croydon’s officials hope that a Westfield shopping centre in their borough will do the same.