Reports of the Death of the Suburbs Are Premature

“The American suburb as we know it is dying,” says Time magazine. They are going to turn into the next slums, says the Atlantic Monthly. Both articles cite research by a planning professor named Arthur Nelson, who claims that by 2025 the U.S. will have 22 million “surplus” homes on large (over 1/6th acre) lots.

Nelson supposedly calculates this in a 2006 paper published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA). Table 4 in the paper says that 38 percent of Americans prefer multi-family housing, 37 percent prefer homes on small (less than one-sixth acre) lots, and only 25 percent prefer homes on large lots. A note to the table says it “is based on interpretations of surveys by Myers and Gearin (2001).”

Those turn out to be rather loose interpretations. The Myers and Gearin paper includes the following quotes and summaries of public surveys:

“Americans overwhelmingly prefer a single-family home on a large lot.” “83 percent of respondents in the 1999 National Association of Home Builders Smart Growth Survey prefer a single-family detached home in the suburbs.” “74 percent of respondents in the 1998 Vermonters Attitudes on Sprawl Survey preferred a home in an outlying area with a larger lot.” “73 percent of the 1995 American Lives New Urbanism Study respondents prefer suburban developments with large lots.”

These surveys don’t provide much support for a claim that only one out of four Americans want to live in a home on a large lot — it’s more like three out of four. In fact, the main point of the Myers and Gearin article is that there is a market for multifamily and small lots, though it is small.

The information used by Nelson “may not be terribly reliable,” comments Emil Malizia, a planning professor who must be famous at the University of North Carolina for understatements, in the same issue of JAPA (and found at the end of Nelson’s paper). “The samples are self selected, . . . the responses may be heavily influenced by the data collection method,” and “people often do not behave in ways that are consistent with the preferences or opinions they express.”

In short, Nelson’s “surplus of 22 million large-lot homes” is just one more example of junk planning science. Of course, Nelson makes this claim to justify planners’ efforts to “rebuild America” using a smart-growth “template.” Just Google Nelson’s name and thesis and you’ll find how eagerly the planners lap up this hogwash.

The suburbs may not be dying, but planners are doing their best to kill them.

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30 thoughts on “Reports of the Death of the Suburbs Are Premature

  1. JimKarlock

    the highwayman: Suburbs aren’t bad, but there are a lot of bad suburbs!
    JK: Let me guess. If it has wide streets, cul-de-sacs, large lots, good schools, low crime or low taxes it is an example of BAD suburb.

    Thanks
    JK

  2. Dan

    These surveys don’t provide much support for a claim that only one out of four Americans want to live in a home on a large lot — it’s more like three out of four. In fact, the main point of the Myers and Gearin article is that there is a market for multifamily and small lots, though it is small.

    No.

    I’ve discussed this numerous times here.

    No need to cherry-pick, Randal: thre are numerous stated preference survey s that show 1/3 of respondents prefer some sort of NU-TND-SG development (which is carried out on the ground as well), and another 1/3 of respondents prefer some of the features of NU-TND-SG developments and would like to have some of them in their cookie-cuttered McSuburb.

    This is discussed in detail in Randolph, John. 2004. Environmental Land Use Planning and Management. Washington, D.C. Island Press.

    We know that many decision-makers already know this, and aren’t gullible dupes for the Randal-type misinformation and distraction away from the realities in the Nelson paper.

    DS

  3. Borealis

    People spend hundreds of hours deciding where to live. They spend ten seconds answering a survey question. Which data should experts give greater weight to?

  4. Borealis

    Hey, I like surveys. I just put more credibility in what tens of millions of people actually do then what a few hundred people say to a survey question. You can ask people if they would like to live close to work, close to shopping, near public transportation, etc., but when it comes to choosing where to put their money, they overwhelmingly choose the suburbs. When survey results differ from reality, does one think reality will change or that the survey might not have been accurate?

  5. the highwayman

    JK: Let me guess. If it has wide streets, cul-de-sacs, large lots, good schools, low crime or low taxes it is an example of BAD suburb.

    THWM: I never said that.

  6. Andy Stahl

    Antiplanner,

    Don’t know whether suburbs are “dying” (I doubt it), but rural Oregon is surely on life-support. I serve on the school board of a 340-student district that is located within easy (10-20 miles) commuting distance of Oregon’s second-largest city. School enrollment in our district is declining about 3% a year. Live births (one indicator of future school enrollment) within our district are at their lowest level in a generation. Demographic projections for unincorporated Lane County show population declining from 64,000 (year 2000) to 49,000 (year 2035). http://tiny.cc/PTfvl. The predominant explanation — there has been no residential development within our district.

    The only Oregon school districts that are growing are those that include new residential housing development, i.e, suburban-style houses. Our school district includes not one acre of land zoned for residential sub-division. The school district’s population is aging, predominantly beyond their child-bearing years, and residing on large-acreage property that when sold is too expensive for young families to purchase.

    I don’t know to what extent the 20th century’s migration from farm to city was the result of government rule. But today’s de-population of rural Oregon, i.e., anything outside an urban growth boundary no matter how close to a city or town, is predominantly the result of land-use laws. An unintended (?) consequence is the demise of school districts, which will only accelerate a spiraling downward population trend as young families conclude that only cities can afford to offer a good public education.

  7. Dan

    Borealis, I’ve already discussed the flaws in “your” argument numerous times here. Fortunately, decision-makers understand the flaws in “your” argument.

    DS

  8. ws

    Borealis: “Hey, I like surveys. I just put more credibility in what tens of millions of people actually do then what a few hundred people say to a survey question. You can ask people if they would like to live close to work, close to shopping, near public transportation, etc., but when it comes to choosing where to put their money, they overwhelmingly choose the suburbs. When survey results differ from reality, does one think reality will change or that the survey might not have been accurate?”

    ws: Is this a free market preference, or simply people choosing due to the low cost of automobile ownership, federal policies which promote fringe growth and exponential highway expansion?

    ROT:“Just Google Nelson’s name and thesis and you’ll find how eagerly the planners lap up this hogwash.”

    ws: Great, now you know how we feel when any anti-transit, pro sprawl, or anti-global warming bunk argument(s) ultimately leads to you or Wendell as a source.

  9. ws

    Andy Stahl “The only Oregon school districts that are growing are those that include new residential housing development, i.e, suburban-style houses. Our school district includes not one acre of land zoned for residential sub-division. The school district’s population is aging, predominantly beyond their child-bearing years, and residing on large-acreage property that when sold is too expensive for young families to purchase.”

    ws: I think you’re under the supposition that if you “build it (suburban home), they will come”. I have a general notion of where you are, however, you have to realize 1) that people won’t move to a subdivision a million miles away in an unincorporated area with no real economy base other than farming and 2) creating subdivisions will probably make some of the area become corporated (to the dismay of other people) with whatever municipality (Eugene, I presume).

    If I know anything about the rural cities of Oregon, they dislike the cookie cutter subdivision more than the die hard urbanites.

  10. Owen McShane

    People in most countries do not overwhelmingly want to live in suburbs. Their choices are more sophisticated than that. Their choices are spread between central cities, suburbs, small towns and rural areas and are essentially evenly spread – and demographics are a major determinant. Young people favour the central city – just as I did. I now live in a rural area.

    Hence, if the majority of New Zealanders want to live outside of major urban centres, they should be enabled to do so, rather than behind UGBs in ‘intensified’ city neighbourhoods. Of course those who want to live in central areas, as I did when I was younger, should equally be enabled to do so.

    New Zealand’s UMR Research released these research findings in March 2009.
    Their survey closely follows the US Pew format, and compares the local findings to the American findings; so is doubly useful.
    Their findings are summarised in the media release:
    “We asked New Zealanders where they live now and then where they would most like to live.
    • 49 percent of New Zealanders now live in the suburbs,
    • 20 percent now live in small towns,
    • 17 percent now live in rural areas, and
    • 13 percent now live in the central city.
    In response to the question “Where would you like to live?”: 

    • 39% said they would like to live in a suburb of a city.
    • 26% percent wanted to live in a rural area
    • 22% would like to live in a small town.
    • 11% would like to live in a central city area,
    • 2% were unsure.
    The preferences of New Zealanders are clear and are essentially the same as those established by the PEW research for the diverse populations of the United States and by similar surveys in Australia. The difference between “Now” and “future” reflects the ageing population.
    IT is hard to conclude the suburbs will disappear but it would seem our populations are going to be more widely spread as people migrate to small towns and rural areas as they grow older.

  11. the highwayman

    Urban growth boundaries are not what’s needed. What is needed, is setting aside park land. Just as what Henry David Thoreau said 150 years ago.

  12. chriswnw

    I think “streetcar suburbs” or “inner ring” suburbs are where it’s at. Single family houses, duplexes and triplexes with lots of space and greenery combined with interconnected streets that make it easy to get around by bike. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Most of Portland, where I currently live, would fall under this classification.

    While I don’t call out for the abolition of the cul-de-sac, I wouldn’t want to live in a post-war suburb unless it retrofitted itself by establishing some sort of minimum connectivity index, mandating a sufficient number of lower speed through streets — perhaps at least one parallel route for every main arterial street — in order to enable easy access by bike and on foot. The suburb that I grew up in wasn’t bad, but if you wanted to cross a railroad track or a highway, you had to use a busy four to six lane road.

  13. Dan

    Owen, your scholarship isn’t improving; don’t quit your day job to be a researcher. How about a cite, ref., link, hint as to where you got that information – you know, basic courtesy?

    DS

  14. Owen McShane

    Well, if you enter UMR research into the google panel their web page comes up top of the list, and if you click on “Are you happy where you live” the pdf file of the summary opens.

    If that is too hard here is the web page URL:

    http://www.umr.co.nz/

    I cannot give the URL for the pdf because it cannot be scanned. They want you to go to the home page first.

    Don’t you know how to use Google?

  15. mattb02

    Urban growth boundaries are not what’s needed. What is needed, is setting aside park land. Just as what Henry David Thoreau said 150 years ago.

    And that will fix what exactly?

  16. Dan

    Again, Owen, for the 10th time, it is not about whether I know how to use The Google, it is the fact that you aren’t smart enough to know that if you quote something, you cite it.

    It’s a part of the basic education.

    DS

  17. msetty

    As usual, The Antiplanner is hardly complete in what he reports. And also as usual, it also helps to read the source material to get the complete picture

    The preface to the quotes by Myers and Gearin used by The Antiplanner has much more context than Randall supplies:

    …Although some scenario of expanded preference projections is likely justified, it is unclear exactly how much greater this demand projection will be than a pure demographic change projection holding constant preferences derived from the late 1990’s [recall it is now 2009, a decade later.] We opt for a fairly small (one eighth) [not really that small] increase in average density preferences by 2010 [which will go up even more by 2020 and 2030]; that small expansion nonetheless yields a large aggregate impact on overall changes in demand. Although our primary emphasis is on the constant preferences scenario, the expanded preferences scenario needs to be considered as well [as it was by Nelson, Christopher Leingberger, and others in much more recent work than Myers and Gearin's 2001 paper quoted by The Antiplanner.]

    Challenges of Available Data

    There is no clear definition of what constitutes pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods and no source of data neatly labeled “walkable neighborhoods, demand for.” We do not have a count of the number of walkable neighborhoods, and certainly no data on their opinions about those neighborhoods.

    Although a fair number of survey results are available, the overall evidence for housing demand is fairly general in its fact-finding and its context. Some of the surveys pertain only to home buyers and others to new construction, and many report data collected only in certain Sunbelt states. The language used in the surveys varies, including liberal use of positive connotations for both urban and suburban living. The surveys generally query for housing preference, rather than actual or even prospective housing consumption, further confusing the issue. Finally, they conflate all homeowners, without differentiating between town house and single-family owners [or between homeowners in auto-oriented areas with curvelinear street patterns vs. generally walkable grid- and semi-grid patterns]. These limitations of the sample universe make it difficult to generalize from these surveys to all of the United States or even to certain areas.

    Regardless of the Myers/Gearin warnings against generalizing, The Antiplanner goes blazing ahead and generalizes anyway, AND despite the relatively “long in the tooth” (2001) age of the article compared to the much more recent work of Nelson, Leinberger et al.

    Myers and Gearin’s findings are generally consistent with the much more recent work of Christopher Leinberger, who estimates that around 30%-40% of the home ownership market over the next generation or so is interested in higher densities, including multiple unit housing and small lot single family in walkable neighborhoods near transit. See The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream. Leinberger’s estimate is generally consistent with the much earlier work of Myers and Gearin, and his projections reflect many of the inexorable demographic changes predicted during the rest of the 21st Century.

    And to put things in further perspective, Leinberger is fair-mined enough to also emphasize that there is absolutely no doubt that many Americans in the two generations after World War II, if not a large majority, preferred the typical post-war suburban pattern that we have. But he also points out that times change and so do demographics.

  18. Andy Stahl

    ws,

    As I noted in my original post, my school district is 10-20 miles from Eugene. So close that I commute by single-speed bicycle from my farm to my office 18 miles door-to-door in downtown Eugene. [Single-speed is a bit slower (1.2 hours) than a race bike (1.0 hours), but so much better training during the winter months.]

    Of course, by automobile the commute to Eugene from our rural school district is trivial — half-an-hour typically. It takes longer than that to get from one end of Eugene to the other (unless you’re bicycling, of course, in which case one can do it in 20 minutes).

    Thus my “rural” school district is not “a million miles away in an unincorporated area” as you suggest. It is immediately adjacent to Oregon’s second-largest metropolitan area.

    In one respect, however, you are correct — we have little economic base within the school district. Most district residents commute to Eugene/Springfield or Cottage Grove for work. Ironically, the little base we do have is primarily agricultural — wineries. And most of those workers commute the other way around — from north Eugene/Junction City to Lorane because they can’t afford to purchase nearby homes.

    Thus, what land-use planning (sic) has created for our district is an economy where poor, primarily brown-skinned, workers commute into the school district from distant inexpensive suburban developments while our district’s residents, primarily white, commute into urban areas for their higher-paid employment.

    Portland State University’s Population Research Center is the state’s gold-standard for school district enrollment forecasting. Those forecasts uniformally show that district enrollment remains stable or grows in the coming 20-30 years only where residential development is possible within the district.

    Nor should one infer that I favor/disfavor Oregon’s land-use planning. I chose to live where I do because Oregon’s strict land-use laws protect my local environment from development. But, as an elected official, I also have a responsibility to patrons and students to ensure the best possible education in our district. I’m confident that the authors of Oregon’s land-use laws did not intend that protecting Oregon’s farms, forests, and open spaces would be at the cost of educating its children. Yet that’s precisely what has happened in our and many other so-called “rural” school districts.

  19. msetty

    Here is some of what Myers and Gearin ALSO said in their summary of various housing surveys:

    First, a small but significant percentage of housing consumers prefer an urban or town residential style to a conventional suburban residential style; this percentage ranges from 17 percent of respondents to the 1999 NAHB survey who prefer a town house in city to 33 percent of respondents to the 1995 American LIVES survey who preferred small-town features such as narrower streets, sidewalks, and shared recreational areas to suburban features such as larger lots and wider streets.

    Second, despite widespread preference for single family homes, a consistent share of housing consumers actually prefers alternative residential styles. This includes a preference for town houses, from 15 percent of respondents to the 1997 Fannie Mae National Housing Survey to 17 percent of respondents to the 1999 NAHB survey; for duplexes, including 10 percent of respondents to the 1997 Fannie Mae survey; and for condominiums, ranging from 9 percent of the respondents to the 1997 Mature Markets study to 14 percent of respondents to the 1996 NAHB survey.

    A third finding contrary to the conventional wisdom is that some housing consumers actually prefer higher density, as indicated for a preference for smaller lots and/or clustered development; from 37 percent of respondents to the 1998 Professional Builder survey to 57 percent of respondents to the 1996 NAHB survey. [!!!]

    Fourth, in direct conflict with desires for low density, about half of housing consumer respondents favor a decreased auto orientation in their ideal neighborhood; 48 percent of 1998 American LIVES survey respondents who prefer a less auto-oriented street pattern with narrow streets to encourage walking and 48 percent of 1998 Vermonters Attitudes on Sprawl respondents who prefer communities with houses, stores, and services within walking distance.

    Finally, enough consumers placed added value for such development on better quality neighborhood design that the market has established a premium price. Researchers considered four examples of New Urbanist development-Kentlands in Gaithersburg, MD; Harbor Town in Memphis, TN; Laguna West in Elk Grove, CA; and Southern Village in Chapel Hill, NC-and found that home buyers were willing to pay a premium, ranging from $5,000 to $30,000, for residences in these mixed-use, higher-density, pedestrian-oriented developments relative to otherwise similar homes in surrounding conventional subdivisions (Eppli and Tu 1999; Tu and Eppli 1999).

    ‘Nuff said??

  20. Borealis

    ws: I am very interested in the debate about whether automobiles are subsidized, and if so, how it skews the market toward suburbs. The Antiplanner has made up his mind, but I like arguments on both sides of the debate. That debate is why I read this blog and the comments, because I am trying to understand. Please continue to provide comments and as much specific information as you can.

    Dan: I may not have read all your comments on my comments. Can you let me know the dates of these comments and I will go back and read them.

  21. Dan

    Borealis:

    They are not necessarily replies to your comments, but your argumentation has been refuted such that the argumentation rarely gets play, and I’ve gone over that ground enough times on this site; therefore I’m not interested in discussing how you don’t like certain survey results.

    You have a lot of work ahead of you if you want to change the direction of public policy – you’ll need to gin up a lot more mis- and disinformation than Randal does here; the effort should be on a CEI-type scale to counter the volumes of scholarly papers that refute your views. Git goin’!

    DS

  22. Borealis

    Thanks Dan. I understand that you don’t need to repeat arguments made often and long ago.

    I don’t work in the area of urban planning and don’t know very much about it. I try to learn about the issues here and read beyond the Antiplanners’ eponymous bias against planning. I learned a great deal about cul-de-sacs in a recent post and comments.

    But my uneducated observations from living in the Phoenix, Connnecticut, Washington DC, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle areas, is that there is a huge amount of discussion about well-planned urban developments, but these have all been essentially just demonstration projects. The overwhelming amount of new development before the 2008 real estate crash was in suburban and far-suburban areas.

    I recently re-visited Arcosanti (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcosanti) after 20 years. Compare that to the nearby Anthem (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthem,_Arizona) which entirely grew up out of the nothing since I lived in Arizona. It is a great contrast, and lots to criticize in both, but there is no doubt which has attracted the most people.

  23. Dan

    Borealis, what you say is true, and that is because of zoning that precludes making places that are attractive and walkable and such. I lived in such an area that you mentioned above, in Seattle. Today’s predominant zoning and development standards rarely allow such a place. I fought long and hard in my city in WA State to make such a place, and as soon as I left, the top dogs in charge changed it back, as it is easier to pour concrete on everything and stonewall the public than to make nice places.

    This is changing, and Denver is public commenting now on new code to replace old code. And we know that the new places are much-preferred as they command a much higher premium, have waiting lists, etc. The delay in change is that the big corporate developers lobby against such changes, as they have their system down and would have to work again to make attractive places. It is harder to resist this change, however, as there is now several hundred true (not corporate-branded) ‘Smart Growth’ developments, and they are nicer places than traditional cookie-cutter fare. There are some who want more, but IMHO those times are passed, and this sort of wish was nice 150 years ago.

    DS

  24. prk166

    Nelsons 22 million has, as we say in scrum, a smell. There will be @175 million homes in the US in 2025, right? That would be 1 in 8 of all homes, wouldn’t it? That would be beyond a ginormous shift in housing in barely more than 15 years. This has the same sort of smell that Dow 30,000 and $200 / barrel oil claims had.

    I don’t doubt that we’re experiencing changes. But I don’t see any reason to believe they’re be anything like what Nelsen is talking about. To see that we’d have to experience a massive shift away from what we’ve experienced. For example, the population growth that downtown Denver has seen in the last 10 years is less than what many its out lieing suburbs like Brighton, Broomfield, Parker or Castle Rock.

  25. Dan

    Prk, you could have discussed Nelson’s conclusions with him last year at the ULI conf at DU. He has laid out his demographic and economic reasons for his conclusions in numerous fora, exactly zero of which you addressed above in 26.

    Try reading the work to be able to speak to the issue. Or continue reflexively denying things that don’t comport with your ideology. Either way, policy direction is changing, and simply saying “I don’t belive it” won’t get you access to influence policy.

    HTH.

    DS

  26. prk166

    Dan,

    Something having a smell isn’t about ideology, it’s about skepticism. In Scrum, a story (what’s used as requirements) may have a smell if it has 12 or 20 story points. In that case the smell is that in being that big it’s likely a couple story that haven’t been broken up yet.

    An example of a past claim that had a smell was Kevin A. Hassett’s Dow 36000. To see the DOW have reached that level in the short time he was claiming it would, would’ve required an unprecedented growth in the stock market, never seen before valuations of companies, hyperfast growth in corporate profits, et al. I would’ve never said back then that I knew it wouldn’t happen; just that it seems incredibly unlikely.

    In the case of Hansen we’re taking about enormous societal shifts that will need to occur in less than a generation. We’ll have to see massive changes in zoning. Housing prices will need to see even larger drops in pricing. To accommodate population growth on top of what would be, IIRC, 1/6th of all housing units in the USA essentially being abandoned, we’d have to see what? 25m? 30m? 35m? million new housing units built during this short period of time to accommodate this change. And why would this happen when we don’t see any signs that sort of massive increase in the rate of change is occurring?

    Again though, this isn’t to say Nelson is overall right nor wrong. I’m not disputing any sort of change. Simply that the level of change Nelsen is talking about seems highly unlikely to occur during the period of time he’s talking about.

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