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Cities Versus Suburbs Is the Wrong Debate

There is an old joke among demographers (a group well known for their hilarity) about a drunk who loses his car keys at the front door of a house that has no porch light. After he realizes his loss, he goes to the nearest street light but well away from the front door to look for them. When asked why he wasn’t looking where he lost the keys, he replied, “This is where the light is.”

Looking "where the light is" is the bane of demographic analysis. This explains the great excitement of pro-suburban analysts like Joel Kotkin, Wendell Cox, and my Brookings colleague Rob Lang about the less than stellar growth of core cities during the past decade. As Kotkin and Cox recently wrote:

“During the 2000s, the census shows, just 8.6 percent of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than a million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs.”

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

Core cities are comprised of pedestrian-oriented urban places, how Jerry Seinfeld lived, but they also include auto-centric suburban places, like the San Fernando Valley in the city of Los Angeles or the Palisades in the District of Columbia. Likewise, the suburbs of those core cities include classic subdivisions and McMansions, like the home of Tony Soprano, but they also include booming places like Old Town Pasadena, Reston Town Center near Dulles Airport outside D.C., and revitalized Jersey City and Hoboken, NJ, on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan.

The issue is where are walkable urban places being built, and they are being built in both central cities and the suburbs surrounding them. My 2007 survey of the walkable urban places in the top 30 metros showed 50 percent of them were in central cities and 50 percent were in the suburbs. In the metro area with the most walkable urban places, the Washington region, 70 percent of the walkable urban places were in the suburbs. These included Bethesda and Silver Spring in suburban Montgomery County, nine places in suburban Arlington County (like Ballston and Crystal City), and the newly built Washington Harbor in suburban Prince George’s County.

Until we focus on the form of the built environment, walkable urban versus drivable suburban, we will be that drunk under the street light trying to find our lost keys.

Additionally, the major evidence of the demand for walkable urban places, both center city and in the suburbs, is that the market demands a premium for walkable urban houses, apartments, and office space. These high prices are perversely used by the skeptics to somehow prove this is a small niche market. To the contrary, high prices demonstrate the severe shortage of supply, leading to significant pent-up demand.