Peak Sprawl? The Fringes of the New York Region Are Shrinking

Image: Rutgers University

While the urban core shrank and the fringes grew between 1950 and 1980, the inverse has been true since 2010, with urban counties growing fastest, and counties on the edge of the region losing population. Image: Rutgers University

A new report out of Rutgers University [PDF] reveals that since 2010, the fringes of the New York region have lost population as the core has grown, a reversal of the sprawling pattern that predominated starting in 1950, when the suburbs grew and the city shrank.

The report compares regional growth between 1950 and 1980 to the three-year trend gleaned from the most recent available data, covering 2010 to 2013. Authors James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and Joseph J. Seneca, a professor at the school, say recent shifts may signal the beginning of a long-term change toward more compact growth, while acknowledging that it’s too early to conclusively say so.

In 1954, Hans Blumenfeld published “The Tidal Wave of Metropolitan Expansion” in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners, using demographic trends in the Philadelphia area to accurately forecast a surge of growth for suburban counties in the coming decades. The Rutgers report could be an early indication that a new chapter in regional growth is already underway.

The report looks at a 35-county region covering four states. From 1950 to 1980, the region grew by nearly 29 percent, adding more than 4.4 million people. Population in the 27 suburban counties nearly doubled, far outpacing the national growth rate. At the same time, the core counties in New York City and Essex, Hudson, and Union counties in New Jersey lost more than 850,000 people, or 8.7 percent.

Since 2010, the trend has nearly reversed, even as the region continued to gain population. Suburban counties kept growing, but at barely a fifth of the annual rate seen in earlier decades. The highest growth rates were in inner ring locations like Bergen, Westchester, and Fairfield counties. In contrast, there were actual population losses in nearly half of the suburban counties, almost entirely on the fringe of the region, including Putnam, Dutchess, Sullivan, and Ulster counties in New York, and Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey.

Growth since 2010 has been concentrated in the core counties, accounting for 69 percent of the region’s total population growth. The gains have been so strong, core counties have added about 30 percent as many people in the past three years as they lost in the 30 years after 1950.

The report says young adults between the ages of 20 and 29 are behind both of these trends. From 1970 to 1980, suburban counties captured 96 percent of the growth in this demographic. From 2010 to 2013, that figure dropped to 56 percent, with the urban core becoming increasingly competitive.

The authors say it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this demographic shift is happening, but cite quality-of-life improvements in the urban core, generational preferences, the high cost of long commutes, and the lower maintenance needs of denser housing in the urban core. They raise two notes of caution, however, saying that ingrained incentives for car and home ownership, as well as underperforming school districts, could work against the demographic shift back to the core.

“Americans’ stubborn love affair with large vehicles, cheap gas, and free roads is still a powerful force working to maintain population dispersal,” they write. “Whether that will translate into a resurgent demand for single-family homes on large lots remains to be seen.”