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The 'burbs are doing just fine

This week’s meeting of the local chapter of the Committee for the Defense and Support of the Suburb will now come to order.

We have some good news to report from our The Suburbs Are Dying and Other Widely Expounded Hoaxes subcommittee.

The Wall Street Journal has just published an editorial by writer and big-picture thinker Joel Kotkin, who provides a welcome refutation to the notion that Americans will desert the burbs in favor of downtown high-rise condominium living.

Despite such predictions, Kotkin writes, “The great migration back to the city hasn’t occurred. Over the past decade, the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased.”

One big component of the housing bust, he adds, has been the slump in many downtown condo markets.

Kotkin’s skepticism about the demise of the suburbs will not come as a surprise to those who attended the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County’s annual meeting in late March and heard his presentation on this subject.

Rather than dying as many pundits have suggested will happen, the suburbs are far more likely to be the center of population growth in coming decades, Kotkin said in his Tacoma remarks, for a simple reason – it’s where people prefer to live. Kotkin termed the trend “declustering,” in which people look for smaller communities (often adjacent to big cities, although the “exurbs” and rural towns are also gaining favor).

Two major groups will fuel much of America’s population growth over the next 50 years, and neither show much appetite for in-city living. The Millenials – as the younger generation is known – won’t be able to afford to (even if they wanted to) as they move into prime property-buying, family-starting years, Kotkin said, and immigrants “don’t come here because they want to live in a little box.”

But what about the boomers who will be bailing out of the burbs and, as Kotkin put it in local terms, moving to a condo in downtown Seattle, growing a ponytail (the men at least) and driving a Porsche?

Guess what? Older Americans are more likely to retire in place, to be near their children and grandchildren. What will result, Kotkin said, is the “multi-generational suburb.”

(There was a lot of meat to chew on in Kotkin’s presentation on subjects beyond the future of the burbs. His speech, complete with data slides, is archived on the EDB’s website in YouTube clips, and is worth the half-hour or so to watch them.)

The idea of the suburb as soul-deadening, car-strangled places that millions would get out of if only they had the chance has long been overwrought and overdone. Such a viewpoint ignores one major attitude and one major trend. The attitude: People like living in the burbs; it’s why they ended up there in the first place (they also like cars, but that’s a diatribe for another day).

The trend: The burbs are not now, if they ever were, huge swaths of look-alike houses with no sense of community and no big-city amenities. Employment and retailing long ago moved to the burbs, which in recent decades have added athletics and recreation, cultural, community, social and ethnic groups, more contemporary attractions such as arts organizations and farmers markets – all the stuff that gives flavor and identity to a community and, not coincidentally, gives suburban dwellers even less reason to visit or move to the city center.

Why this matters (other than telling the New Urbanists to give the ’burb-bashing a rest already) is that understanding how and where people want to live shapes the decisions that regions like Tacoma and Pierce County make in allocating resources and attention to economic and community development.

First, as Kotkin noted, making sure you have a viable and vibrant economy is crucial. Without that, it doesn’t matter whether you’re focusing on the cities or the suburbs, neither is going to get the investment in infrastructure and amenities they want.

Next comes the realization that it doesn’t have to be either-or. Why not have both? Our population is going to grow – why try to funnel those additional bodies into one place? Let’s have choice.

To make those choices attractive to their respective constituencies, government officials, planners and others will have to make sure that they don’t focus so much money and effort on trying to revitalize the city core that they neglect providing investment and amenities for the burbs.

City advocates for some reason take offense at the suburbs’ existence. The suburbanites don’t begrudge the choice of those who want to live downtown, though – when they pay attention to downtown at all.

In reality, it’s to each other’s benefit, and to the region as a whole, that both downtown and the suburbs work as places that attract people who want to live there – even if those residents can’t imagine how anyone would want to live in that other place.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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