A couple of excellent posts by Stu Donovan over the last couple of weeks have highlighted a fundamental change in transportation trends across not just New Zealand, but many developed world countries: we’re not driving more – in fact, on a per capita basis, we’re driving a lot less. After a century of almost uninterrupted increases in the use of private vehicles, this is a pretty enormous change – something far too challenging for the small minds at the Ministry of Transport or NZTA, for example.
But this is not the only fundamental change that’s occurring. Just as we have always assumed traffic volumes will increase, we have also always assumed that the land-use development market wants to sprawl. Limiting urban sprawl has been seen as an important planning ideal for a long time (for a variety of reasons), but it has always been pitched as a battle between planners (who want to contain it) and ‘the market’ (which supposedly wants to sprawl). This simplistic situation dominates discussion in Auckland, for example, about how the city should grow. Allowing most development to occur through intensification is seen as “unrealistic”, “contrary to market forces” or even “authoritarian” – based on the assumption that it’s working against a natural desire of people to want large sections on the edge of the city.
Until relatively recently, this simplistic approach may well have been true. If you look at the USA, population change in 2006 showed a huge amount of growth (shown in red) taking place in suburban and rural areas (map from here):
However, if we look at 2011 the pattern is quite different: So generally a lot less growth in the larger rural/suburban counties that show up clearest in the map above. But the US population is still growing, suggesting that a lot more of the growth must be concentrated in urban centres that don’t show up as obviously in the map (because they’re geographically much smaller). The USA Today article that put together these maps discusses this:
Almost three years after the official end of a recession that kept people from moving and devastated new suburban subdivisions, people continue to avoid counties on the farthest edge of metropolitan areas, according to Census estimates out today.
The financial and foreclosure crisis forced more people to rent. Soaring gas prices made long commutes less appealing. And high unemployment drew more people to big job centers. As the nation crawls out of the downturn, cities and older suburbs are leading the way.
Population growth in fringe counties nearly screeched to a halt in the year that ended July 1, 2011. By comparison, counties at the core of metro areas are growing faster than the nation as a whole.
A bit of analysis of where growth is actually happening:
All but two of the 39 counties with 1 million-plus people — Michigan’s Wayne (Detroit) and Ohio’s Cuyahoga (Cleveland) — grew from 2010 to 2011.
Twenty-eight of the big counties gained faster than the nation, which grew at the slowest rate since the Great Depression (0.73%). The counties’ median growth rate was 1.3% (half grew faster, half slower).
Those 28 — including California’s Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Florida’s Broward and Hillsborough, Texas’ Harris and Dallas — generated more than a third of the USA’s growth. Before the recession and housing bust, when people flocked to new development on farmland, they contributed just 27%…
…Central metro counties accounted for 94% of U.S. growth, compared with 85% just before the recession.
And some further discussion:
“This could be the end of the exurb as a place where people aspire to go when they’re starting their families,” says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution. “So many people have been burned by this. … First-time home buyers, immigrants and minorities took a real big hit.”
During the ’70s gas shortage and the ’80s savings and loan industry crisis, some predicted the end of suburban sprawl. It didn’t happen then, but current trends could change the nation’s growth patterns permanently.
Aging Baby Boomers, who have begun to retire, and Millennials, who are mostly in their teens and 20s, are more inclined to live in urban areas, McIlwain says.
“I’m not sure we’re going to see outward sprawl even if the urge to sprawl continues,” he says. “Counties are getting to the point that they don’t have the money to maintain the roads, water, sewer. … This is a century of urbanization.”
Demographic change really is the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to predicting future trends. While it’s early days for us to make completely confident pronouncements over the future of urban sprawl, just as changing trends relating to traffic volumes require us to fundamentally rethink much of what we’ve previously taken as gospel, changing demand patterns for urban development need to be given serious consideration. Perhaps the real urban development debate is not so much about the market wanting sprawl and planners trying to fight the market; but rather more about the market wanting different housing types in inner urban areas and our planning system being unable to cope with how to provide these in an attractive yet affordable manner.