The Changing Demographics of America

The United States population will expand by 100 million over the next 40 years. Is this a reason to worry?

Population growth places the United States in a radically different position from that of Russia, Japan and Europe. (Q. Sakamaki / Redux)
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Some aspects of suburban life—notably long-distance commuting and heavy reliance on fossil fuels—will have to change. The new suburbia will be far more environmentally friendly—what I call “greenurbia.” The Internet, wireless phones, video conferencing and other communication technologies will allow more people to work from home: at least one in four or five will do so full time or part time, up from roughly one in six or seven today. Also, the greater use of trees for cooling, more sustainable architecture and less wasteful appliances will make the suburban home of the future far less of a danger to ecological health than in the past. Houses may be smaller—lot sizes are already shrinking as a result of land prices—but they will remain, for the most part, single-family dwellings.

A new landscape may emerge, one that resembles the network of smaller towns characteristic of 19th-century America. The nation’s landmass is large enough—about 3 percent is currently urbanized—to accommodate this growth, while still husbanding critical farmland and open space.

In other advanced nations where housing has become both expensive and dense—Japan, Germany, South Korea and Singapore—birthrates have fallen, partly because of the high cost of living, particularly for homes large enough to comfortably raise children. Preserving suburbs may therefore be critical for U.S. demographic vitality.

A 2009 study by the Brookings Institution found that between 1998 and 2006, jobs shifted away from the center and to the periphery in 95 out of 98 leading metropolitan regions—from Dallas and Los Angeles to Chicago and Seattle. Walter Siembab, a planning consultant, calls the process of creating sustainable work environments on the urban periphery “smart sprawl.” Super-fuel-efficient cars of the future are likely to spur smart sprawl. They may be a more reasonable way to meet environmental needs than shifting back to the mass-transit-based models of the industrial age; just 5 percent of the U.S. population uses mass transit on a daily basis.

One of the urban legends of the 20th century—espoused by city planners and pundits (and a staple of Hollywood)—is that suburbanites are alienated, autonomous individuals, while city dwellers have a deep connection to their neighborhoods. As the 2001 book Suburban Nation puts it, once suburbanites leave the “refuge” of their homes they are reduced to “motorist[s] competing for asphalt.”

But suburban residents express a stronger sense of identity and civic involvement than city dwellers. A recent study by Jan Brueckner, a University of California at Irvine economist, found that density does not, as is often assumed, increase social contact between neighbors or raise overall social involvement; compared with residents of high-density urban cores, people in low-density suburbs were 7 percent more likely to talk to their neighbors and 24 percent more likely to belong to a local club.

Suburbs epitomize much of what constitutes the American dream for many people. Minorities, once largely associated with cities, tend to live in the suburbs; in 2008 they were a majority of residents in Texas, New Mexico, California and Hawaii. Nationwide, about 25 percent of suburbanites are minorities; by 2050 immigrants, their children and native-born minorities will become an even more dominant force in shaping suburbia.

The baby boom generation is poised for a large-scale “back to the city” movement, according to many news reports. But Sandra Rosenbloom, a University of Arizona gerontology professor, says roughly three-quarters of retirees in the first bloc of boomers appear to be sticking close to the suburbs, where the vast majority reside. “Everybody in this business wants to talk about the odd person who moves downtown,” Rosenbloom observes. “[But] most people retire in place. When they move, they don’t move downtown, they move to the fringes.”


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