For the best part of the last 40 years, planners, pundits, and environmental activists have predicted—and wished for—the demise of suburbia. They have blamed everything from global warming to expanded waistlines on these communities, whose growth has proceeded largely unabated. Indeed, despite predictions of a movement back to the city, the vast majority of all metropolitan growth since 2000—roughly between 80 and 90 percent—has been outside of core cities. Even those cities that have grown most rapidly, like Las Vegas and Phoenix, are largely suburban in character.
Now, of course, we hear that other factors—rising energy prices, an aging population, and the current housing bust—will lead to the reversal of the suburban trend. If so, the census has not captured any such trend. The preferences of most home buyers, young and old, have remained constant for nearly four decades, with no more than 10 to 20 percent wishing to live in dense urban areas. And roughly 80 percent prefer single-family homes to apartments, according to surveys.
Of course, sales of all residential properties, including those in suburbia, have slowed markedly: The mortgage crisis is stopping everyone in their tracks. In the end, it's really all about the economy. The financial industry has continued to cluster in core cities, even as most others moved to the suburbs and smaller towns; as a result, the problems once ascribed to suburbs are now spreading to much-ballyhooed urban cores. In Chicago, there is a reported 73 percent drop in downtown home sales for the first half of the year.
When the smoke clears from the current crisis, it is likely that single-family homes and suburbs will reassert their predominance. One often overlooked reason is that suburbia is where the jobs are: Since 2000, job growth in cities has averaged less than one-sixth that of suburbs, according to research by my colleagues at the Praxis Strategy Group.
This is not to say that suburbs won't continue to evolve. Once exclusively white, they are now increasingly multiethnic; about half of all immigrants now live in peripheral communities. In the future, look for suburbs to become less attached to their traditional cities. Many are already developing their own cultural and commercial centers. These changes will lead to a more sustainable suburban future, one where people can work, shop, and recreate in the moderate-to-low-density communities they overwhelmingly prefer.
Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is executive editor of newgeography.com.