Cross-posted from the Frontier Group.
Sommer Mathis said much of what needed to be said about the recent round of “the suburbs are back, baby!” stories on housing trends, including this analysis from Jed Kolko, housing economist at Trulia.com, and the related commentary from Matt Yglesias at Vox.
Mathis argues that the concept of a battle for supremacy between cities and suburbs is fundamentally silly, especially at a time in history when the terms “city” and “suburb” each represent a wide variety of built forms and socioeconomic conditions.
There is another problem, however, with these stories, which is that they play into the narrative — recently championed by the likes of Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin — that when it comes to housing trends, little meaningful (other than the recession) has really changed in the United States in recent years.
Kolko, for example, states that, after a brief period in which urban population growth outpaced that of the suburbs, “old patterns have returned,” while Yglesias states that “the trajectory of American housing growth is still all about the suburbs.”
But the “old patterns” have not returned. Far from it. The old pattern of development, which prevailed during the second half of the 20th century (and the first few years of the 21st), was one of rapid suburbanization characterized by the universal spread of a particular kind of segregated-use, automobile-oriented development known colloquially as “sprawl.”
As Kolko notes, suburbs today are adding population a wee bit faster than cities, a shift from earlier this decade when cities were growing a wee bit faster than suburbs. But for most of the 20th century, suburbs weren’t just beating cities by a nose in the hypothetical growth contest, they were trouncing them like Secretariat at the Belmont.