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The suburbs didn't die — just short-circuited

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Jonathan Thompson | Jun 02, 2014 05:00 AM

Wasn’t it just a few months ago that we were all celebrating the death of the suburbs? Both Millennials and Boomers, and perhaps many of those in between, were headed for the walkable, vibrant urban core. We would bulldoze no more desert for McMansions; sunflowers would invade exurban golf courses; and the expressways built to accommodate mind-numbing commutes would be taken over by bicycles. All those homogenous homes out in the fringes would be abandoned.

But wait. The paradigm has shifted yet again! Or so it seems. In Census bureau data released May 22 on population growth in metropolitan areas, the Wall Street Journal found “Signs of a Suburban Comeback:”

The long tug of war between big cities and suburbs is tilting ever so slightly back to the land of lawns and malls. After two years of solid urban growth, more Americans are moving again to suburbs and beyond.

The fastest growing towns of over 50,000 could be considered suburban or even exurban, and many of them are in the West. A quick glance at the list would lead one to conclude that our growth patterns are heading right back to where they were before the housing crash, and that rumors of the death of suburbia were wildly exaggerated. Western ‘urbs in the top 10 for percentage of growth from 2012 to 2013 include:

  • South Jordan, Utah — a suburb or even exurb of Salt Lake City — placed third nationally after a couple of Texas towns, growing by a whopping six percent and adding 3,400 people;
  • In fifth place is Lehi, Utah, another city along the sprawling Wasatch Front/Salt Lake metro zone. It added 2,842 to its population, for a growth rate of 5.5 percent;
  • Goodyear, Arizona, a sort of poster child for Phoenix-area leapfrog development, was number six, with a 4.8 percent growth rate, adding 3,308 people;
  • And Meridian, Idaho, a suburb of Boise, was in 10th place, adding 3,187 people for a growth rate of four percent.

Compare those growth rates to, say, Seattle (2.8 percent), Denver (2.4 percent) or Phoenix proper (1.7 percent), and you can see why some folks think that the post-Recession urban influx is already ending. Well, it’s not. The fact is, the urban cores are still adding a lot of people: Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, San Jose and Denver are all among the top 15 for numerical — not percentage — population gains. There’s certainly no evidence that the masses are fleeing city centers for the fringes; Seattle's core is growing far faster than it's 'burbs. Nor is it clear that the folks who are moving to the suburbs are doing so for the “lawns and malls” as the Journal story implies.

Much of South Jordan, for example, looks typically suburban. Yet it’s also home to Daybreak, the new urbanist community developed by the real estate arm of mining giant Rio Tinto/Kennecott, whose Bingham Canyon mine sits nearby. Daybreak is supposed to be the anti-suburb suburb. That is, it’s compact, walkable, mixed-use, has 20 miles of bike paths, and has its own rail station allowing for a quick ride into the city. Nearby Lehi may not be new urbanist, but it is home to a new campus for Adobe software — meaning it might be growing thanks to a sudden surge of high-paying jobs, not because people want to get out of the city. Like South Jordan, Lehi is also hooked into the Wasatch Front commuter rail system. People may be flocking back to the suburbs, but it appears to be for different reasons than before the Recession, and the suburbs they are landing in tend to look more urban than before.

The top ten counties in the U.S. for rate of construction of new housing units -- nearly all are in the oil and gas patch. Source: US Census Bureau.

Nor are we building new suburban developments at anywhere near the rate of a few years back, an indication that a lot of the new people moving to — or having kids in — places like Goodyear or South Jordan are buying or renting existing homes. Four of the five top counties for percentage of housing units added between 2012 and 2013 are in the oil and gas patch, including three North Dakota counties and Uintah County, Utah — none of which are exactly suburban. Not one Arizona county makes the top 100. A couple rural Nevada counties do, but only because they started out with so few homes.

Only 1,114 housing units, which includes single apartments, were added to the entire state of New Mexico that year, giving it one of the most sluggish rates in the nation. Arizona and Colorado each added around 20,000 — with once booming Nevada adding 5,900 — a mere shadow of the number of the houses slapped together during the boom. Meanwhile, North Dakota added 10,000 units.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that we need to be careful when considering giant "paradigm shifts" of human behavior. Using language like "the End" of the suburbs or their "death" is rather stark, implying that huge tracts of homes would be abandoned and bulldozed back into the earth. Of course, that's not really what anyone means when they talk about these things. Proclamations of their death were meant in a more figurative way: That the dominant post-World War II growth pattern, a collective urge to move further and further away from the city center, to bigger lawns, homes and malls has been short-circuited. The newest data adds nuance to this idea, but doesn’t debunk it. Even in our suburbs, we’re looking for something different than before the crash, something like real communities that don’t force us into our cars for several hours each day. We haven’t found that ideal yet, but perhaps we’re moving in that direction.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

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