If we’re in an urban renaissance, why are cities still losing population?

Despite the general feeling among urbanists that the city is making a comeback after half a century of neglect, I still read from a lot of suburbanists (a catch-all term I’m using to describe Joel Kotkin, Wendell Cox [see comments], etc.)—and even the mainstream media—that cities are still losing population. I don’t have a lot of patience for statistics, so it all becomes a sort of he said/she said argument to me, but here’re a few opinions from the pro-“cities are becoming more desirable” side.

First, here’s Ryan Avent, who argues that looking at population stats is misleading without taking into account prices:

But of course, population growth is an unreliable indicator of demand, because of the all important supply side of the market. Imagine two areas: Gotham and Pleasantville. Say the demand to live in Pleasantville increases a little while the demand to live in Gotham soars. And say that due to differences in land use restrictions, housing supply responds dramatically in Pleasantville and very little in Gotham. Then what we’ll observe in Pleasantville is a rapid increase in population and slower growth in prices, and what we’ll observe in Gotham is rapid growth in prices and slower growth in population. And this is exactly what we have observed in the real world. Suburbs have seen massive housing growth and rapid population growth, but prices in central cities have soared, even in many places where population numbers are level or falling. If no one wanted to live in central cities, prices for homes there would not rise. And indeed, several decades ago, prices for homes in big central cities were dropping. But that trend has clearly reversed. You can’t draw conclusions about demand shifts from population numbers alone. This is a very simple point, and yet its repeatedly ignored.

And here’s Michael Lewyn (with a new blog! …which unfortunately has no RSS feed. Can anyone get in touch with him and ask him to rectify that?), arguing that we need to look at where in these declining cities the growth is happening, using St. Louis as an example:

Big winners: the most urban parts of St. Louis.  St. Louis’s once-desolate downtown gained population in huge numbers, and near-downtown areas like Soulard, Lafayette Square and the Central West End gained population. The losers?  The bad neighborhoods on the North Side and the more pseudo-suburban areas in the South Side. So what does this tell me?  That even in St. Louis, a city that has lost population faster than Detroit over the past few decades, the MOST urban areas are gaining. Even in St. Louis, people want to live in the city in greater numbers each year, as long as the environment is fairly city-like (i.e. downtown or close to it). The only thing that hasn’t happened is that gentrification hasn’t trickled down to the less urban neighborhoods further out.

He also makes the same point about Chicago.

And finally, Tim Evans on a blog about smart growth in New Jersey, who points out that Kotkin’s definition of a “city” leaves a lot to be desired:

Only five New Jersey municipalities make the list [of New Jersey cities], three of which (Edison, Union and Wayne) are more like the kind of places most people, probably including Kotkin himself, have in mind when they think of the suburbs.  (Wayne, incidentally, is the hometown of — and inspiration for — the unabashedly suburban rock band Fountains of Wayne, who frequently sing about life in the North Jersey suburbs.)

More tellingly, consider some North Jersey cities that are NOT on the list:   Paterson (New Jersey’s third-largest city), Elizabeth (fourth-largest), Clifton, Passaic, Orange, East Orange, Bayonne, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, Hackensack, Linden and Rahway.  Not to mention Union City, West New York and Hoboken, three of the most densely populated municipalities in the entire United States (all three exceed 30,000 people per square mile).  Not to mention a whole host of smaller but still “urban” places such as Asbury Park, Keansburg, Neptune, Long Branch, Garfield…

Oh, and Jersey City, the 2nd-largest city in the state.

All of these places fail to meet one or the other of the four criteria for qualifying as a “principal city.”  In other words, they are all “suburbs” by Kotkin’s definition.  That’s right, Jersey City is a suburb.  In fact, so are 23 of the 30 “distressed urban communities” identified by the Housing and Community Development Network in its Cities in Transition report of 2006.

So, there you have it. Seems pretty damning to me, but if Joel Kotkin or any suburbanists are out there reading and would like to respond to their critics, I’d be more than happy to post their response.

The only thing that I’d say in response is that (sub)urban trends seem to take a very long time to play out. From what I understand, cities were still growing in the ’40s and ’50s (and maybe even early ’60s?), despite the fact that many of the pro-suburban policies (height restrictions, banning of new elevated rail projects, zoning, parking restrictions) started going into effect soon after (if not before) the turn of the century. Given that many cities haven’t even gotten around to parking reform, I’d wait a few decades before declaring the urban renaissance a sham.