In Praise of Suburbs

January 29, 2006 |
Suburbia often gets a bad rap, but government should accept that people want the picket fence ideal.
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As California's first large urbanized region, the Bay Area has a long and compelling history as a center of city life. When Fresno was little more than a couple of shacks and Los Angeles a gunslinger's cow town, San Francisco already saw itself as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city.

Yet today, this cherished ideal of the Bay Area as a neatly organized, dense urban center is increasingly archaic. The suburbs are starting to take over. Long anxious to see itself as a Pacific version of Gotham, the Bay Area increasingly resembles more and more its hated rival to the south, Los Angeles.

The health of this suburban configuration, so widely detested in planning and policy circles, may hold the key to the Bay Area's future health. Facing a European-like demographic decline, and losing economic vitality, the Bay Area will need to look to its hinterland for its future growth, if it still has the will to do so, and to house and nurture the next generation of its middle class.

The primacy of suburbia, in California or elsewhere, should really not be very debatable. Roughly 51 percent of Americans, according to one recent survey, prefer to live in the suburbs, while only 13 percent opt for life in a dense urban place. A third would opt for an even more low-density existence in the countryside. The preference for suburban-style living continues to be particularly strong among younger families.

Market trends parallel these opinions. Despite widespread media exposure about a supposed return to the city, the most recent demographic data suggest that the tide continues to go out toward suburbia. The most recent census data tell us that suburbs account for two-thirds of the total population in large metropolitan areas. Nor is the trend going away: Roughly 85 percent of all post-2000 growth has taken place in the suburbs.

Attempts to halt suburbanization, such as those in Portland, have had at best mixed results. Although widely held up as an exemplar of smart growth, Portland's tight suburban growth limits have tended to drive residents farther out and have done little to reduce the area's traffic congestion. However much planners--whether in the United States, Britain or Australia--want people to live in denser space, a large percentage of people continue to seek out single-family houses, and leave areas when these are no longer affordable.

The Bay Area's suburbanizing trend has been in place for decades. Middle-class people, particularly families, started leaving crowded San Francisco and troubled Oakland for the wider open spaces around them in the decades after World War II.

In ensuing decades, the Bay Area became increasingly sprawling, with growth reaching toward Sonoma to the north, the delta to the east and down toward Santa Cruz.

In the 1990s, 93 percent of the region's residential growth of 700,000 people occurred outside the large cities. Similarly, the economic might of the area shifted dramatically away from San Francisco. By the late 1990s, the city held only slightly more of the region's 500 largest companies than its proportion of the population would suggest. During the last great expansion, the dot-com boom, San Francisco effectively became an economic vassal of the Silicon Valley, while much of the old corporate establishment decamped for the East Bay suburbs.

In some senses, this dispersal pattern--obscured by the symbolic prominence of dense, touristy San Francisco--seemed to be working. In the late 1990s, the Bay Area attracted a high percentage of bright, young and well-educated people. Policy experts, and many observers, logically saw it as a model for the new digital economy.

Now, five years after the collapse of the dot-coms, the region seems to have fallen into a largely unacknowledged economic and demographic deep freeze. Despite being home to some of the world's most impressive young companies, such as Yahoo and Google, the area's overall population growth and job growth has stagnated.

Most importantly, there is a mass exodus of middle-class people from the region. According to demographer Wendell Cox, the Bay Area since 2000 has experienced the highest rate of population decline of any U.S. region, as measured in the number of residents moving out to other areas of the country vs. the number moving here. The Bay Area lost some 456,000 people more than it gained (excluding immigration or births), a phenomenon demographic experts call "per-capita domestic out-migration," roughly 6.4 percent of its 2000 population. This rate is five times higher than that of greater Los Angeles and significantly higher than metropolitan New York, a stunning reversal of pre-2000 trends. Although the highest losses were experienced in San Francisco, Alameda and Santa Clara counties, net out-migration occurred almost everywhere except for Contra Costa County.

In contrast, there has been growth in the outer regions. Much of the gain is from domestic migration, much of which appears to be coming from the Bay Area. The same pattern appears to be occurring in the job market. For example, between 2001 and 2005, the Sacramento, Stockton and Fairfield-Vallejo areas expanded their job base by more than 5 percent. In contrast, the Oakland area lost 1.4 percent of its jobs; San Francisco lost more than 9 percent, while San Jose, the region's new economy hub, saw jobs plummet a scary 14 percent.

Apologists can argue that the highest-paying, high-skill jobs remain concentrated in the Bay Area, but overall employment in higher-income professions--professional, business and manufacturing and information jobs--has been plummeting. Many of these people appear to be heading into the interior, as well as to rival states such as Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

The reasons for this continuing decline are complex, but one factor stands out: housing prices. In much of the Bay Area, affordability rates are now down in the single digits, about one-third of the state's interior regions. This, more than anything else, has been driving away the younger people and families who might be essential to turning the region around.

It may well be that many Bay Area people, particularly those who are affluent, may not see this as a problem. As the hotbed of environmentalism and "smart growth" sentiment, the Bay Area, and the towns in its suburban sprawl, have been notable in opposition to new housing development, particularly single-family homes. This was true during the boom of the '90s, and it is true today.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Harvard's Ed Glaeser has pointed out that a similar process is occurring in the Boston area, where suburban growth has been choked off under the guise of environmental protection or to preserve quality of life. As a result, demographers have traced a growing out-migration of young people to less-expensive places such as New Hampshire or the sunbelt.

Part of the problem lies in the past success of regions like the Bay Area and Boston. Well-educated, affluent residents, often sitting on properties worth close to a million dollars, have little reason to share their lifestyle. This is particularly true for those who work in the more sophisticated, globalized sectors of the economy, or in the bulging nonprofit sector, where cash flows are not tied to the local economy.

For those who are sitting on property and have good jobs, this makes perfect sense. The problem lies in the future.

As is already occurring in the Boston area, the Bay Area may well already be experiencing "the European disease," that is, low birth rates, particularly among its affluent residents, and a rapidly aging population.

Massachusetts has lost population the past two years, the only state to earn that distinction. Not only is Boston, like San Francisco, becoming increasingly childless, but so are many of its suburbs. Once considered a lure to young people, the Bay State is now sometimes referred to as "the granny state."

One anomaly in both Boston and the Bay Area is a still-strong tide of immigration. Some of these immigrants may be well-educated technologists and professionals, but many more are less well-educated workers needed to serve the aging, affluent population in restaurants, hospitals and as domestic workers.

Ultimately there is only one real solution to this scenario of aging and genteel regional decline--the reopening of suburban growth.

Planners' dreams of the Bay Area's new residents living in new high-rise, ultra-dense developments are just that--dreams.

Most adult Californians, roughly 84 percent, want to live in a single-family house. Among young families, including immigrants and minorities, who are critical to the region's vitality, the sentiment is probably even stronger.

Although widely vilified, embracing a suburban growth model does not have dystopian consequences. New single-family oriented suburban communities can be developed intelligently, with green space around them and a small, denser core for residents who will want that style of living. These communities should be developed, or improved, with the notion of providing many of the cultural, recreational and entertainment functions traditionally associated with cities. Such suburban villages have begun to emerge throughout the Bay Area from Santa Clara to Pleasanton and Dublin.

By welcoming companies and entrepreneurs to start up in the periphery, and accelerating the use of digital technology to encourage working at home, these new suburban hubs can reduce the usual traffic consequences associated with new development, especially if we also make appropriate transportation investments.

Such a course--the adoption of an enlightened new suburbanism--could help restore the Bay Area's lost luster as a region of opportunity for the next generation. Such a development may not fulfill the notions of nostalgic city boosters or environmental fundamentalists, but could help the Bay Area adjust to the realities of our increasingly suburbanized age.