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Stephanie Cohen

New Atlantis blogger Stephanie Cohen is a journalist who covers energy and environmental issues for a wide range of print and online publications. She can be reached at scohen@thenewatlantis.com.
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Power Politics

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The future of suburbia 

The Cost of Energy blog points us toward a terrific article in the LA Times titled Suburbia’s Not Dead Yet. The piece, written by Joel Kotkin, argues that contrary to conventional wisdom, high gas prices won’t send suburbanites running for the cities. Kotkin takes on the “urban boosters” (a.k.a. suburbia haters) and compares their doom-and-gloom predictions to the 1970s population hawks:

The “out of the suburbs, back to the city” narrative rests more on anecdote than demographic or economic fact. Yes, high gas prices and rising sub-prime mortgage defaults are hurting some suburban communities, particularly newly built ones on the periphery. But the suburbs remain home to a majority of Americans and a larger proportion of U.S. families — and people aren’t leaving those communities in droves to live in cities. Even with economic growth slowing, many suburbs, exurbs and smaller towns, especially those whose economies are tied to energy, are continuing to do better than most cities in terms of job creation and population growth.

The ominous predictions that the end of suburbia is at hand echo those in the 1970s, when there was also a run-up in gasoline prices. Then it was neo-Malthusians such as biologist Paul Ehrlich, the author of “The Population Bomb,” who argued that the idea of suburbia was unsustainable because it eats up so much land and energy. But suburban growth continued as people bought more fuel-efficient cars and companies moved jobs to the periphery, which cut commuting times. Contrary to pundits’ forecasts, during this decade of high energy prices, the country’s urban populations, for only the first time in recent history, actually fell, according to a census analysis by economist Jordan Rappaport at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

But today’s gas prices, at more than $4 a gallon, are the highest ever, and the prospects of them significantly dropping any time soon are slight. The conditions for an exodus from suburbia to the cities would seem ideal once again.

Nevertheless, since 2003, when gas prices began their climb, suburban population growth has continued to outstrip that of the central cities, with about 90% of all metropolitan growth occurring in suburban communities, according to the 2000 to 2006 census. And the most recent statistics from the annual American Community Survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, show no sign of a significant shift of the population to urban counties, at least through 2007.

The entire article can be read here.

Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive editor of the website http://www.newgeography.com/. Mark Schill, managing editor of the site, also has a recent post critiquing a Kansas City Star article that made the very argument Kotkin takes apart.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 1:33 pm
File As: American Energy Consumption