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It’s Not Just Minneapolis

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A decade or two of the New Urbanist vision has led to some shiny and popular developments. But on the whole, urbanist claims about walkable villages being what the market demands are not supported by the facts.

Take Gotham City:

Some of the best evidence that the tide has not turned against dispersion and suburbanization comes from an unlikely source:  New York’s 2010 census results. If dense urbanism works anywhere in America, it does within this greatest of US traditional urban areas.

In all, this 23 county metropolitan area has the nation’s largest population and actually extended its margin over second place Los Angeles, which has been converted from a growth leader to a laggard giant growing slower than most Midwestern metropolitan areas. New York added 574,000 residents, while Los Angeles added 473,000.

If you had read the New York Times and other Manhattan-based media over the last decade you would have assumed the suburbs were in decline and cities ascendant, particularly in the New York area.

Yet in reality over the past decade, the suburban counties captured their largest share of New York metropolitan area growth in three decades. During the 2000s, the suburbs accounted for 71 percent of growth, up from 54 percent during the 1990s and 48 percent in the 1980s. The outer suburbs grew the fastest, while the inner suburbs – some of which are denser than historical core municipalities in other metropolitan areas – grew faster than the historical core municipality, the city of New York.

If you click through to the article, you’ll see that most of the growth was on Staten Island and almost none was in Manhattan. Both count as part of “New York” to us in flyover country. But Staten Island is a spacious exurban paradise, not a mass of brownstones standing shoulder to shoulder.

Citing percentages can be misleading, however. Manhattan was already so dense, how could one expect to pack more people onto that sliver of rock? There was room to capture new growth because so many had already left in previous decades. Manhattan’s population was already down by hundreds of thousands from its early-20th-century peaks.

Critically, the city of New York did worse than at any time since the 800,000 population loss that was sustained in the 1970s, representing all of the loss since 1950. Between 1950 and 1980 the suburbs added 3.9 million residents.

The suburban lifestyle continues to be what people want. Dense cities reflecting the romanticized streetcar era are either a boutique luxury or a compromise necessitated by poverty.