There is a general perception that the densest US cities are in the Northeast, where downtowns tend to be bigger and inner city densities are higher. However, cities have become much larger geographically, and also include the automobile oriented lower density suburbs that have developed since World War II. In fact, most of the densest major urban areas are in the West.
The doubtful claim that low density US cities impose a cost to the economy of $400 billion is countered by their being the most affluent in the world. Nine of the top 10 cities in GDP per capita are in the US and more than 70% of the top 50. The highest GDP per capita city in the world is one of the least compact, Hartford, with an urban population density among the bottom 10 out of more the than 900 urban areas larger than 500,000 (See here and here).
There have been frequent press reports that baby boomers, those born between 1945 and 1964, are abandoning the suburbs and moving “back” to the urban cores (actually most suburban residents did not move from urban cores). Virtually without exception such stories are based on anecdotes, often gathered by reporters stationed in Manhattan, downtown San Francisco or Washington or elsewhere in urban cores around the nation. Clearly, the anecdotes about boomers who move to suburbs, exurbs, or to outside major metropolitan areas are not readily accessible (and perhaps not as interesting) to the downtown media.
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Many American cities, described commonly as urban cores, are functionally more suburban and exurban, based on urban form, density, and travel behavior characteristics. Data from the 2010 census shows that 42.3 percent of the population of the historical core municipalities was functionally urban core (Figure 1). By comparison, 56.3 of the population lived in functional suburbs and another 1.3 percent in functionally exurban areas (generally outside the urban areas). Urban cores are defined as areas that have high population densities (7,500 or per square mile or 2,900 per square kilometer or more) and high transit, walking and cycling work trip market shares (20 percent or more). Urban cores also include non-exurban sectors with median house construction dates of 1945 or before. All of these areas are defined at the zip code tabulation area (ZCTA) level, rather than by municipal jurisdiction. This is described in further detail in the “City Sector Model” note below.
The very centers of urban cores in many major metropolitan areas are experiencing a resurgence of residential development, including new construction in volumes not seen for decades. There is a general impression, put forward by retro–urbanists and various press outlets that the urban core resurgence reflects a change in the living preferences of younger people – today’s Millennials – who they claim are rejecting the suburban and exurban residential choices of their parents and grandparents.
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For every 100 mortgages being sold in the United States these days, at least 95 of them have government backing. We’re told America has a free-market economy? Not judging by the government’s involvement in housing, arguably the most important market there is. Most people can go years without needing health care. A healthy adult can go weeks without food. We cannot go one day without needing shelter.
The fortunes of U.S. core cities (municipalities) have varied greatly in the period of automobile domination that accelerated strongly at the end of World War II. This is illustrated by examining trends between the three categories of “historical core municipalities” (Figure 1). Since that time, nearly all metropolitan area (the functional or economic definition of the city) growth has been suburban, outside core municipality limits, or in the outer rings of existing, core municipalities.
The banking crisis of 2008 and its attendant deep recession have been hailed by statists the world over as the ultimate demonstration of capitalist greed and a justification for more and more regulation and government control of the economy, particularly the financial sector. Their argument boils down to an accusation that private actors in the marketplace are incapable of dealing with systemic crises and that government is the only agent that can address the market as a whole in order to combat panics and economic shocks. That argument won out in the aftermath of the recession, leading to a raft of new regulations, most notably the voluminous Dodd-Frank Act.
Today, more than any time, arguably, since the Great Depression, the prospects for improved housing outcomes are dimming for both the American middle and working classes. Not only is ownership dropping to twenty-year lows, there is a growing gap between the amount of new housing being built and the growth of demand.
Philadelphia was America’s first large city and served as the nation’s capital for all but nine months between the inauguration of George Washington is the first president in 1789 and the capital transferred to Washington, DC in 1800. Before the early 1900s, the United States Census Bureau had not developed a metropolitan area (labor market area) concept. However, the website peakbagger.com has attempted to define earlier metropolitan areas based on concepts similar to those used today. In the case of Philadelphia, this is important, because it was somewhat unique in having virtually adjacent, highly populated suburbs that make comparisons of municipal populations (the only population data available) misleading.
The recently released 10th edition of Demographia World Urban Areas provides estimated population, land area and population density for the 922 identified urban areas with more than 500,000 population. With a total population of 1.92 billion residents, these cities comprise approximately 51 percent of the world urban population. The world’s largest cities are increasingly concentrated in Asia, where 56 percent are located.
Time Magazine’s Sam Frizell imagines that the American Dream has changed, in an article entitled “The New American Dream is Living in a City, Not Owning a House in the Suburbs.” Frizell further imagines that “Americans are abandoning their white-picket fences, two-car garages, and neighborhood cookouts in favor of a penthouse view downtown and shorter walk to work.” The available population data shows no such trend.
There was a time when downtown Los Angeles was the commercial center of Southern California. According to Robert Fogelson, writing in his classic Downtown: Its Rise and Fall (1880-1950)”nearly half” of Los Angeles residents went downtown every day in the middle 1920s. A time traveler from 1925 might think that to still be the case, with the concentration of tall buildings, and the frequent press reports about downtown’s resurgence.