“Uber-geographer” Joel Kotkin wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently: “Pundits, planners and urban visionaries — citing everything from changing demographics, soaring energy prices, the rise of the so-called ‘creative class,’ and the need to battle global warming — have been predicting for years that America’s love affair with the suburbs will soon be over.”
As Wichita considers adoption of the plan for the revitalization of its downtown, urban planners — both local and out-of-town — tell us that there’s a big demand for downtown living. People are tired of suburban living, they say. Presentations by the city’s planning firm Goody Clancy have contained bullet points like “who favor living and working in vibrant downtowns” and “and they are part of broad demographic trends that are much more ‘downtown friendly’ …e.g., almost two-thirds of Wichita’s households include just one or two people.”
This purported shift from suburban to urban lifestyles is one of the primary underlying memes for the downtown Wichita planners. Is this shift in preference real?
Not according to Kotkin: “But the great migration back to the city hasn’t occurred.”
Kotkin cites some figures showing the decline in the market for downtown condos in a few cities, and concludes “Behind the condo bust is a simple error: people’s stated preferences.” He shows some figures that support his contention that “Demographic trends, including an oft-predicted tsunami of Baby Boom ’empty nesters’ to urban cores, have been misread.”
These demographic trends are behind the analysis that Goody Clancy uses to promote its vision for downtown Wichita. Kotkin’s research ought to give us concern that downtown visionaries are leading Wichita down a path that really isn’t there.
Kotkin issues a note of caution for urban planners: “The condo bust should provide a cautionary tale for developers, planners and the urban political class, particularly those political ‘progressives’ who favor using regulatory and fiscal tools to promote urban densification. It is simply delusional to try forcing a market beyond proven demand.”
What does this mean for Wichita? Wichita’s planners and leaders are promoting a light-handed approach to downtown development, saying, for example, that public financing will be only for public purposes. But Wichita has a history of heavy-handed interventionism using economic development tools of all types. They wish for more. And as the mayor said at a council meeting earlier this year, he’s recently learned of new types of incentive programs that other cities are using. Other council members and some city staff believe that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” for shoveling incentives on companies for economic development purposes.
So I think Wichita’s leaders definitely will use the “regulatory and fiscal tools” that Kotkin warns of. It’s only without government intervention that we’ll know whether Wichitans really prefer suburban, downtown, or other forms of living. Urban planners and city hall bureaucrats can’t tell us that.
The Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration
The condo bust should lay to rest the notion that the American love affair with suburbia is over.
Pundits, planners and urban visionaries—citing everything from changing demographics, soaring energy prices, the rise of the so-called “creative class,” and the need to battle global warming—have been predicting for years that America’s love affair with the suburbs will soon be over. Their voices have grown louder since the onset of the housing crisis. Suburban neighborhoods, as the Atlantic magazine put it in March 2008, would morph into “the new slums” as people trek back to dense urban spaces.
But the great migration back to the city hasn’t occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased. Meanwhile, demographer Wendell Cox’s analysis of census figures show that a much-celebrated rise in the percentage of multifamily housing peaked at 40% of all new housing permits in 2008, and it has since fallen to below 20% of the total, slightly lower than in 2000.