City v Suburb

There are countless studies and endless debates about the true direction of location and lifestyle preferences – is it back to the city or is it the relentless pursuit of the American dream, aka suburbia? Adding to this debate is Lisa Sturtevant of the George Mason University School of Public Policy, Center for Regional Analysis, in her article entitled “A Return to the City or a New Divide in the Nation’s Capital Region?.” In her short, yet compelling, commentary Sturtevant identifies the emerging divide between urban and suburban, citing the demographic, economic, and political trends that will shape transportation, housing, and other regional policies. Using Washington, DC as the case study, there are both foundations and stumbling blocks. Sturtevant classifies the Washington, DC metropolitan area into five sub-regions – Center City, Inner Core, Inner Suburbs, Outer Suburbs, and Far Flung Suburbs. Clearly, these sub-regions can be applied to most metropolitan areas. In the study, the Outer Suburbs (110%) and Far Flung Suburbs (80%) were the fastest growing regions over a twenty year period. Over that same time period, the metro area’s population grew by nearly 1.4 million people. As the Center City, Inner Core, and Inner Suburbs have limited opportunities to accommodate such growth, it seems only natural that those areas further out would be less developed and, therefore, better positioned to accommodate growth.

Sturtevant notes that those inner sub-regions have had a negative net migration, or population loss, over the study period. This alone can not be attributed to growth constraints closer in to the core. But, as population builds further afield, and affordability increases further from the core, employers and jobs and retail opportunities follow. And, further, it would seem prudent to examine migration rates in those Center City, Inner Core, and Inner Suburbs considered to be “good” neighborhoods, and compare those to “bad” neighborhoods. It is reasonable to expect that the “good” neighborhoods have smaller population losses. But, also reasonable to postulate that opportunities for positive migration are extremely difficult, given that older, desirable neighborhoods have approached full build-out, especially in places like Washington, DC where building newer usually does not mean building taller and more dense.

Planning policy that limits urban growth, by restricting heights or densities, is akin to the urban growth boundaries (UGBs) of many regions. These UGBs have been vilified by some as artificially constraining supply and, therefore, raising prices. But, just as policies to limit outward growth can disrupt supply and demand balances, so, too, can limiting upward growth. In Washington, DC this holds especially true as building heights are limited to no higher than the Capitol building. Putting a ceiling on density and vertical growth forces people to outlying regions, especially in a growing metropolitan region striving for economic success. Of course, there are much less desirable neighborhoods in Washington, DC where growth could be accommodated, but the resulting claims of gentrification present yet another hurdle, both physically and politically.

Established neighborhoods simply have fewer opportunities to increase their populations, unless shorter buildings can be redeveloped as taller buildings. A follow-up study in a city without strict height regulations that is further broken down by neighborhoods may reveal a different outcome. While this would complicate the city v suburb debate even further, it would provide additional data points in the exceedingly difficult realm of understanding the endless complexities that shape the built environment.