It's safe to assume that author Joel Kotkin won't be asked to be asked to speak at many New Urbanist events.
Kotkin, who recently wrote “The Next Hundred Million,” a look at how demographic patterns are likely to shape development during the next forty years, predicted the continued dominance of suburban housing in years to come. "People prefer the suburbs," Kotkin told PCBC audience last week
Kotkin took issue with Christopher Leinberger’s 2008 article in the Atlantic that called suburbs “the next slum.” Research, Kotkin said, “shows something else.” Projecting unsourced data that showed detached housing gained market share from 2000 to 2008. Kotkin treated the audience to a quote from Herbert Gans: "If suburban life is undesirable, the suburbanites themselves seem blissfully unaware about it.”
Kotkin contested several currently popular principles within the home building, architecture, and planning communities in his sparsely attended session. One was a potential move toward attached housing. Americans prefer single-family detached housing, he said, a driving force that isn’t likely to change much even with growing immigration. “People don’t come from Hong Kong so that they can live in a box in America. The [immigrant] desire for space is very strong.”
Kotkin thinks the urban “niche” will grow, even though he said that urban projects currently account for a disproportionate percentage of auction sales. “There is an urban market, and that market has a big megaphone, because that’s where the media is located.”
Some of the most interesting data Kotkin presented came from Wendell Cox, who computed the percentage of jobs in central business districts in major metro markets. The average among the 50 largest cities is only 9.7% of the jobs, with the leaders being New York (20.1%), Washington (18.7%), and Chicago (14.3%). On the other hand, in Phoenix, the central business district accounts for only 2% of jobs; in Los Angeles, the number is 2.5%.
Kotkin did allow that suburban projects in far-out masterplans were the first to feel the impact of the housing recession. But he attributed their unpopularity to long commutes that made them less desirable, a disproportionate share of toxic mortgages, and prices inflated by the housing bubble. More recently, large urban projects are suffering, he said, because once such developments got underway, an expensive proposition, they had to be continued through the housing recession. “Anything new was vulnerable," Kotkin said.
Kotkin showed data from the 2004 National Community Preference Survey done for Smart Growth America and the National Association of Realtors indicating that Americans prefer to live in the suburbs. In that survey, 51% of Americans said they preferred to the suburbs, either close in or far out. Another 35% said they wanted to live in a rural area. Only 18% said the city.
Even young people appear to prefer the suburbs, according to a survey by Frank N. Magid Associates cited by Kotkin. The data shows that 38% of millennials, age 18 to 28, live in the suburbs now, and 43% believe that's the ideal place to live.
Why do Americans prefer suburban settings? Kotkin showed another chart, gleaned from a homeowner survey commissioned by Zoby International in 2005, that listed the most important issues for homeowners. Topping that chart were the desire for safety and security, quiet, privacy, and resale value.
Much of Kotkin's presentation was devoted to determining the best-performing markets in the future. “The big issue [in coming years] is that people will move where there are jobs. We are living in a job-short environment right now. If I’m looking for where to invest, I’m going to look to where there will be jobs," he said.
Those may be the places that are already creating employment. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that from 2000 to 2009, the markets that produced the most jobs were Riverside, Calif. (14.5%), Houston (12.6%), Washington, D.C. (10.1%), and Phoenix (8.9%). Only three other major metro markets recorded job increases during this period: Dallas (3.7%), Miami (2.1%), and Seattle (1.3%).
In the meantime, American's seem to be abandoning the most expensive places to live, such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Miami. These metro areas had the biggest population losses during the last 10 years, Kotkin said, as percent of 2000 population.
Americans also appear to be moving to smaller cities. While metro regions with populations of 5 million or more experienced net out-migration during the last decade, cities with populations from 5 million to 30,000 recorded increases. The analysis of U.S. Census population estimates came from the Praxis Strategy Group.
“We can’t have everyone working for the Census," Kotkin said. "At some point, we will need to see real jobs in the private sector. That’s the only way out … I would be looking very carefully right now at where there will be job growth.”
Boyce Thompson is editorial director of BUILDER magazine, where he writes the blog Boyce on Building.