4.21.2008

ROOM TO GROW

It used to be easy to think that metropolitan areas would forever expand outward. Cities were a mess and land was cheap, so who wouldn't trade ten more minutes in the car one way to have a bigger house on a bigger lot, far away from all the ills of urban cores?

Urban renaissances and dear oil have changed the equation for some. Maybe public policy will further correct the imbalance between how much it costs governments and the environment to live in far-flung places and how much those people actually pay in. Maybe more people will voluntarily choose cities, partly out of running the numbers and partly out of lifestyle preferences.

Thankfully, most cities have room to grow. From an infrastructure standpoint, these are places that were built to serve a lot more than they now have. Just take a look at this extraordinary chart of city populations in 1950 and 2000. St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo bled half its population during that time; Baltimore 300,000 less people, Philadelphia well over 500,000 less, and Detroit had 900,000(!) less.

These are all, of course, Rust Belt cities that dwindled as we shifted out of manufacturing. Demographics favors the Sun Belt, as retirees seek warmer climes and Hispanics grow faster than anyone. Among our Top 50 cities by population now are such places as Tucson, Mesa, and Long Beach - all more populous than such big-league cities as Cincinnati, Kansas City, and New Orleans.

Maybe people will continue to equate the American Dream with a picket fence in a quiet subdivision in the burbs. But if the economics of living and moving keep going the way they're going, maybe there's a mass reverse exodus into cities. And if so, I know a lot that have room to grow.
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