Mark Hinshaw in Crosscut provides yet another entry in the exurbs-are-dying genre. A few years ago, I wrote two posts reacting to previous articles in this thread. There have been others over the years, most notably this Freakonomics roundtable.
For me, though, Matt Yglesias applies the critical sober analysis:
Rising gas prices and various other considerations have prompted this increased round of speculation on whether the suburbanization of America will reverse, but the right answer needs to take into account the fact that what policy choices we make will have a strong impact on the course of the future.
Here’s the money graf:
It’s totally plausible that we’ll respond to high energy prices by keeping our transportation spending priorities similar, while incumbent homeowners in-or-near walkable places respond to increased demand by enacting tight development restrictions in order to maintain artificial scarcity of housing stock and maximize the value of their homes. A similar overall proportion of the population would live in the suburbs, but the urban/suburban socioeconomic mix would continue shifting (“demographic inversion”) and overall quality of life will be hampered. Alternatively, we could alter our land use rules to facilitate the construction of denser areas and shift transportation spending priorities. That would slow sprawl, encourage inner suburbs to become less “suburban,” and a shift of the population base toward the cities. That would also be the more prosperity-friendly solution (not because cities are awesome, but because it’s more economically efficient to allocate resources in a manner less constrained by arbitrary regulatory barriers) and I hope it’s the solution we adopt, but whether or not we do it is totally uncertain.
The only thing I have to add is that the population of most metro areas will continue to grow. So in his first scenario, where we keep the statutory status quo, you might see demographic inversion, but over an increasingly sprawling area. Homes in Seattle and Bellevue become more unaffordable than they already are. As you get to current outer suburbs and exurbs, incomes steadily decline, until you reach towns that currently haven’t been absorbed into the metropolis yet. These towns would grow up to be sprawling exurbs, with the added problem of being of a lower socioeconomic stratum than that currently associated with exurbs.
In the second scenario, increased density moderates prices in the core, creating a mix of housing prices throughout the metro region. Furthermore, since growth is directed inward, the geographic metro region has roughly the same limits it has today.