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Misleading Indicator--Head Counts not Condos Better Reveal City Trends

Futurist/urbanist/cultural provocateur Joel Kotkin was back again yesterday on the WSJ op-ed page declaring that the “back-to-the-city movement is wishful thinking.” 

His evidence: steep declines from peak in condo prices in a handful of big Sun Belt cities, including Miami, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. That and the results of a few surveys indicating continued residential preference for suburban over urban environments. (The piece more than echoes a similar one he penned for the Journal in 2007.)

But why look at these indirect data points when you can go to the source: recent city population trends. My colleague Bill Frey has done just that, and found that 2008-2009 was the most “pro-urban” year for population growth in at least a decade, with cities and suburbs overall growing at roughly equal rates.

To be sure, this trend doesn’t herald massive influxes of formerly suburban residents into downtowns. It may simply signal slowed out-migration from cities, in line with lower overall migration rates due to the bleak housing and labor market. But it’s surely an odd time to declare cities losers in the competition for residents.

Price data plucked from a few downtown condo markets are highly selective, too, considering that Zillow and others have examined the relationship between home values and proximity to downtown across a range of metropolitan markets. They find that, in general, homes closer to the urban core have held their value better over the downturn than those in farther-out suburbs. Again, that doesn’t mean people are moving “back to the city” in droves, but it hardly buttresses an argument that the “urban political class” has forced “a market beyond proven demand,” as Kotkin writes. A few downtown developers clearly misjudged the market, but they’ve got more than enough company in their outer suburban counterparts.

Strangest of all, though, is that behind these occasional screeds, Kotkin’s vision for what’s needed in metropolitan planning and development is really quite sensible--not a policy preference for the urban or suburban, but rather a commitment to creating human-scaled communities throughout metro areas that provide a range of residential, commercial, and transportation options. Indeed, the preference surveys and home price trends suggest that being within a short distance of jobs, retail, and cultural offerings is more important to households than whether they live in a city or a suburb. And even more important, as Kotkin recognizes, are safe streets and good schools, regardless of where they are found. That all seems like the right sort of agenda for planners and policy makers.

Needling Richard Florida might be appealing to the typical reader of the WSJ op-ed section. But maybe in the near future, Joel could use his occasional column there to describe his affirmative vision for achieving a “new suburbanism.” Now that would be a valuable use of prime real estate.