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The End of Sprawl?

Metro area growth means decline of the farthest suburbs
  • April 16 2012

Suburban sprawl—where metro areas spread outward from the city center to the farthest outskirts and formerly rural land becomes suburban or exurban development—has been a reality since the first suburban expansion in the 1950s. But today, a variety of factors seem to be putting an end to this phenomenon, according to analysis of recent U.S. Census data.

During last decade’s housing boom, these exurban areas experienced rapid growth. However, they were also among the areas most affected by the financial and foreclosure crisis. As a result, many Americans appear to be avoiding these areas in favor of suburbs closer to city centers and the cities themselves.

In the Census Bureau’s most recent population estimates, all but two of the nation’s 39 counties with populations over 1 million grew between 2010 and 2011. The two that didn’t—Michigan’s Wayne (Detroit) and Ohio’s Cuyahoga (Cleveland)—were particularly hard hit by the recession.

Analysis by USA Today further backs this up. It noted that the population in 28 of the 39 largest counties grew faster than the country overall. Those counties—which include California’s Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Florida’s Broward and Hillsborough, and Texas’ Harris and Dallas—generated more than one third of the total U.S. population growth. Prior to the recession, those same counties accounted for just 27% of the population growth.

Finally, the USA Today analysis found that central metro counties accounted for 94 percent of U.S. growth from 2010 to 2011, compared to 85 percent before the recession.

"There's a pall being cast on the outer edges," John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit development group that promotes sustainability, told USA Today. "The foreclosures, the vacancies, the uncompleted roads. It's uncomfortable out there. The glitz is off."

In his discussion of the USA Today article on Atlantic.com, Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, notes this is “part and parcel of what geographers identify as a ‘spatial fix,’ one of the central ways advanced economies rebound from economic crisis. The U.S. is in the earliest phases of this current spatial fix, which revolves around renewed development of urban space, particularly at the once neglected core.”

Florida goes on to note that, “The city has become the key social and economic unit of today's economy, and its clustering and density the are the source of innovation, productivity improvement, and jobs. Urban centers across the country are drawing new businesses including high-tech start-ups.”

 

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