City limits blur up close

Three decades of retail Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Chris Leinberger refers to how the 2010 Census tract-level data dump has inevitably led to self-congratulatory crowing by the pavement-lobby-funded sprawl-triumphalist brigade:

“Unfortunately, the census shines the light on the terms ‘city’ and ‘suburb’ –neither of which are the keys to understanding today’s built environment.”

Friendship Heights, Maryland shows a particularly striking illustration of how it’s dangerous to strictly rely on Census geography to define terms like “city” and “suburb.” (As if categorizing Fresno as a city and Newark as a suburb weren’t quite enough.) On the right, the Mazza Gallerie enclosed mall walls itself off from the “central city” streets, whereas on the left, the mixed-use, high-rise, street-facing Wisconsin Place is in the “suburbs.” To further muddle the vagaries of local Census geography, the four-block, 34-acre Census Designated Place (and incorporated tax district) of Friendship Heights Village is right behind Wisconsin Place. Since it’s just a cluster of mostly residential high rises, it’s the single most densely populated “place” in the entire country, with 79,556 residents per square mile. Even Manhattan only clocks in at 69,468 per square mile.

On the broader point: the triumphalists still refuse to recognize that population growth is just one, and not even a particularly good, metric of success. Global and national population growth is slowing, household sizes are declining, and housing space consumption per capita has grown considerably (although this trend is declining in suburbs, it probably still has a way to go in cities). All of these trends, plus the by-definition relative lack of cheap developable land in cities, means that cities will lag in population growth — but that most have turned the corner and are no longer places that people are fleeing when given the choice. I described Chicago’s turnaround as not one where the population is growing, but as one where it is ceasing to shrink as quickly (a turnaround in the second derivative of population growth). To the extent that hasn’t been borne out, it’s also a definitional problem — the city’s core is still growing, but outlying, low-density neighborhoods are emptying out as they undergo a different, more painful part of a demographic cycle. That doesn’t change the fact that something remarkably novel and different is happening to the core, though.