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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

New census numbers confirm that sprawl is losing its grip

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 19, 2009

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somewhere sort of near Atlanta (by:Andrew Bossi, creative commons license)I've written about this before, but this week there's new evidence that sprawl is on the decline, and more people are getting it.  There are quite a few news stories this morning about the latest census data, but I'll link you to Haya El Nasser in USA Today.  Here's the gist:

"Booming Sun Belt cities and exurban counties across the USA are not attracting as many people as they once did while older industrial centers that had lost residents for decades are losing fewer, according to Census population estimates out today . . .

"Many of the older areas are still attracting fewer people than they're losing, but the losses are much smaller than in previous years. The July 1, 2008, estimates of population in counties and metropolitan areas show dramatic turnabouts: New York registered the smallest outmigration since at least 1990 . . ."

In the Washington, DC area where I live, the shift in trend is dramatic, according to N.C. Aizenman in The Washington Post:

"As housing prices have plummeted and credit has shriveled, more residents of the District and Washington's inner suburban counties have chosen to stay put, all but ending the steady exodus to the region's less expensive, outer suburbs that characterized most of this decade, according to Census Bureau estimates released today . . .

"The impact of the trend -- which [Brookings Institution demographer William] Frey said follows similar patterns in metropolitan areas including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando and Charlotte -- was particularly dramatic in Arlington County: More residents moved there from other counties than moved out during the July 2007 to July 2008 period covered by the census figures, a first for this decade. The net gain of 1,750 people, combined with a net 2,403 immigrants who moved to Arlington from overseas during that period, helped swell the county's population by 3 percent, compared with 1.6 percent growth from July 2006 to July 2007 . . ."

I may spend more time inside these numbers in a future post.  While I agree that the economic crash has accelerated the trend, I think there's considerable evidence that, just as with our driving habits, these changes were already afoot. 

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Jim NoonanMar 19 2009 08:47 PM

Hopefully these numbers are not just a reflection of the economy. The Maryland Department of Planning has tracked this kind of data for years. Every economic downturn, going back until at least the early 1980's, has been paralleled by a reduction in the rate of sprawl.

The difference this time might be that local governments (and I include DC in this category for this purpose) have finally started to push the advantages of urban and small town living, so that perhaps (just perhaps) the numbers go to a deeper trend this time.

We can at least hope so.

Kaid @ NRDCMar 19 2009 10:13 PM

Exactly. I think that, while it would be foolish to discount the effect of the economy, it's undeniable that the recession has depressed sprawl values more than inner-county values. Demographics are also trending away from sprawl, with families with school-age children composing a smaller share of households. Add traffic congestion and worry about a resurgence in fuel prices and that's a potent mix in favor of smarter locations. As you said, we can hope.

Keith DavisMar 20 2009 01:19 PM

I'm wondering what type of evidence you would want to see to show that the depreciation in sprawl is due to the public's perception of sprawl as a negative versus what I believe is actually afoot, which is that residences that exist in vapid cultural wastelands no longer represent the bargain they once did. Should the spread between city living and the 'burbs return, don't you think that sprawl will once again blossom? How long can the memory of $4 gas last unless it returns? We all hope that it is for real, but I am just wondering what signs you are looking for to verify that.

Kaid @ NRDCMar 20 2009 01:46 PM

Thanks for your perspective, Keith. I'm actually fine with what the proposition that the changes we see are due to market forces. Far-flung development is indeed less of a bargain than it once was thought to be, in large part because of the greater transportation costs associated with living there. And another big part of it is changing demographics, with a smaller portion of our population willing to pay a premium for large lot sizes.

I don't think those things are likely to change anytime soon; in fact, market forces may become stronger deterrents to sprawling locations if gas prices rise again, as I suspect they will at some point. There will remain demand for outer-suburban living, for better or worse, but its portion of the market will become smaller. And, I hope, those same forces will push to make existing suburbs better. I'm going to do a post soon on Chris Leinberger's work, which should shed some more light on this.

Mike LewynMar 21 2009 10:57 PM

A couple of caveats:

1. All of this assumes that the fiscal crisis (and the resulting possible impacts for crime and urban transit) don't make urban living LESS attractive over the next couple of years.

2. Meanwhile, the stimulus is going to mean lots of money poured into sprawl-producing road projects while transit service gets cut (see 1 above). To be sure, stimulus money will mean some money for visionary new transit projects- but I'm not sure that this benefit will outweigh the effects of 1 above.

Kaid @ NRDCMar 22 2009 11:22 AM

Your second point is especially a danger, Mike. The related point about transit cutbacks making urban living less attractive is also a risk. But, for the first time in ages, at least we now have market forces on the side of more urbanism and compact development.

We all need to be concerned about the effect of the economy on crime, too; but, for better or worse, crime is not nearly as concentrated in central cities as it once was, according to studies from Brookings and others. If it increases, it will hurt suburbs, too.

Where I come out is that these caveats are well worth keeping an eye on. But there's more reason to be hopeful about the overall trends than we've had in a long time. We need to take policy measures to reinforce and strengthen them, and we'll have opportunities to do so in federal transportation and state planning law.

Keith DavisMar 24 2009 08:46 PM

Did you by any chance see the study by William Lucy out of the University of Virginia that studied the crime rates of cities against the death rate of vehicular deaths of counties. Basically, you'd be a fool not to live in a city if you want to live.
Here is a shortlink to an article about it:
and a shortlink to my response post to it on my blog:
Interesting way to look at safety. How often we allow ourselves to only look at half a story and come to conclusions.

Kaid @ NRDCMar 25 2009 10:41 AM

Thanks for those links, Keith. Nice blog.

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