Are We Seeing the End of the Exurbs?

Change in population distribution 2000-2010 mapThe Census Bureau garnered headlines when it reported that the LA connurbation was among the most densely-populated in the United States. It was a man-bites-dog story: famously sprawling Los Angeles beats highly-centralized cities like New York and Chicago on density. And that’s despite the dearth of comparable mid- and high-rise housing. Where are our bustling downtown streets? Crowded metros? Do the new census numbers suggest an epochal reversal is underway?

It’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it? These United States of yawning open spaces and family farms is not as rural as it would appear. In fact, it’s not even as exurban as we might think as we drive from Ventura to San Bernadino. In fact we’re urban – and that is a stark contrast to the message telegraphed by 19th century area boosters. They advertised our region as perfect for a small farm. Later boosters pictured the fast-industrializing Southland as single-family home with lawn, picket fence, and fruit tree. The factory was safely distant on the horizon.

Far from that vision of the California Dream, the reality is much different today and long has been. In the intervening years, we used land use, transportation, and lending policy to drive the growth of suburbs, and today they reach into Ventura, Riverside, and San Bernadino counties. For too long, these homebuyers provided the demand that supported a market for larger homes ever more distant from jobs and transit. We also encouraged ‘greenfield’ commercial development near freeways.

For all of these places, we just didn’t plan how we would one day, post ‘peak oil,’ get people from those places and back. Washington still favors highways to transit and people-powered mobility: in 2008, the freeways got 75 cents of every federal direct transfers dollar (or $30 billion). That’s 5 times the total support for transit and a multiple of about one hundred on ped and bike investment. The gas tax funds it today, but of course not all motorists make use of the freeway system extensively. Heavy users, then, are heavily subsidized. They don’t call them ‘freeways’ for nothing! And of course we’re still building suburban housing and that won’t change tomorrow.

US new home sales 1990-2010 chart
The curl of the wave tells the story: unsustainable growth at the exurban periphery.

But the bloom is off the rose now that demand has tapered. Prices have fallen and new homes are built smaller. But the real focus is no longer at the fringe but nearer to the center. We are urbanizing at a rapid clip, the census showed, and population growth in urban centers is outpacing the country as a whole.

These trends are not new. The consolidation of farms long pushed households to nearby towns. The growth of towns into today’s urban ‘clusters’ (as defined by the census: fewer than 50,000 people) was perhaps inevitable as our¬†absolute population increased. And of course the growth of early suburbs around nucleus cities created large urban areas that we’re recognizing today. Yesterday’s suburban Westchester or Encino or Woodland Hills is today’s fully-urbanized city of Los Angeles, and it is a hop on the freeway from nearly anywhere else in the urban area (heck, Encino looks just like West Los Angeles. Ouch!)

What is remarkable here is the relative shift to urban living. It seems that in spite of the flight to the suburbs over many decades, not only have we increased urban population but we’ve just broken the 80% threshold countrywide. We’re urban, baby! (Read more about population change from the Census Bureau’s brief.)

More locally, according to the census the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim urbanized area is home to 7,000 people per square mile – a higher density than even the New York urban area. (We’re the fifth fastest-growing urban area in the US by absolute population increase). That figure suggests that our households are spread like peanut butter across the land. So what we lack in uber-density we make up for with consistent distribution because our growing communities have grown closer together.

Several factors contribute to an urban nation. In our area chief among them:

  • Reversal of last decade’s accelerated flight to exurban areas (‘greenfields’ in the planning parlance) for cheaper – and more spacious – housing. The recession played a key role, economists say, as foreclosures and tight credit undermined non-sustainable communities.
  • Higher transportation costs and longer commute times sapped quality of life. Stories abound of 90+minute commutes, or trips to work that begin before 6 am.
  • Devaluation of exurban communities. Hardest hit in the downturn, not coincidentally, are the places far from urban areas where most of us wouldn’t want to live anyway, like the Riverside-San Bernadino-Ontario urban area where commodity housing suddenly lost value (-25% over 2008-09!) with the change of market winds [American Community Survey property value estimate].
  • The increasing attractiveness of urban areas. Crime has decreased and cultural amenities have multiplied.¬†Policymakers renewed their focus on education. And investment that once flowed to exurban areas (and drained inner-city areas) now finds opportunities closer to the city center.

Our Means of Mobility Must Evolve Too

Now it’s time for our housing, transportation, and development finance policies to catch up with the reality. Recreating the rail system that we dismantled a half-century ago is slow and expensive work. Light rail is less-efficient than subways. And buses are a sub-optimal substitute for light rail. How or whether we make these transit investments will be more clear after November, when local elections are concluded and some clarity comes to Washington.