Sunday, June 3, 2012

Growing Apart: Some Trends Worth Grasping

Hey friends,

I'm currently in Stockholm, Sweden, about to give a presentation to the Industrial Ecology Department at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). My presentation is about sprawl and urban planning in the United States, with a special emphasis on the Chicago region.

I thought I'd share some of the data that I'm presenting. Most of the this data is plucked directly from the Census, so the analysis isn't particularly sophisticated, but for my friends that aren't neck-deep in these trends, I think they could be thought provoking.
I've compiled these particular data to show that even as we're living closer together in cities than we did in rural areas historically, we're very much growing apart. Our homes are getting larger and fewer people are living in them. In Chicago, the suburban population is growing rapidly while the central city population is shrinking in proportion to the State of Illinois and in absolute terms. A large majority of Americans drive alone to work, and suburbanites are even more likely to drive alone because they have little other choice (unless they live and work along the same commuter train line).

My research revolves around environmental planning and innovation strategies for combating climate change. I'm growing increasingly convinced that the solution to climate change cannot come from new technology: we must instead re-learn how to live together. Urban and suburban living provides us many luxuries, but we cannot live in cities forever and expect to have our "own" everything. As we've transitioned to urbanity, we've forgotten how to share stuff. I'm certain this in not sustainable. I believe figuring out how to share again will be the major challenge of the twenty-first century.

You can click on the images to enlarge them. Shall we begin?

1. An Increasingly Urban World

As of a few years ago, most of the world's 7+ Billion people live in or near cities.   This transition from rural to urban has happened incredibly fast, and urban populations are projected to increase well into the future. This is the result of multiple technological and economic changes, but to sum up an enormously complex trend: people are finding they can no longer earn a livelihood in the countryside. Even attempts to "digitize" the countryside have backfired, inspiring young people to migrate to urban centers where they can earn more money for their skills. How could you blame them? An increasingly urban population presents multiple challenges to city planners and decision-makers, not least of which urban migrants will live.

2. An increasingly urban nation (1850-2010). The United States transitioned to "urbanity" a long time ago, around 1917. This transition from rural to urban was accompanied by innovations in transportation and production that made life in cities increasingly attractive. "Fordism" (mass production for mass consumption) and "Taylorism" (the application of scientific methods to industrial production) were applied to manufacturing processes just as the mechanization of agriculture made human labor in rural areas less and less valuable. Urban centers, now crowding with new inhabitants, began to run into health and safety issues in addition to infrastructural challenges that accompany skyrocketing population densities.

3. Average home floorspace (1973-2000). Throughout the twentieth century, the average floor space of USA dwellings has grown, but we haven't filled this extra space with more people... The average household size (number of residents in a household)  shrunk from 4.6 inhabitants to 2.59 inhabitants between 1900 and 2010.

4. One-Person Households on the Rise. Are you living alone? You're not alone. One-person households have grown much faster than any other household size category and now characterize over one-quarter of all households in the United States. For renters, it's even higher at 36.5 percent! Only two-person households make up a larger portion of all US households.

5. Regional Variations of One-Person Households. Of course, there are some variations in the number of one-person households from state to state. Illinois nearly matches the national trend. Washington D.C. is the most solitary "state" where over 40 percent of residents live alone. Utah, on the other hand, has the fewest percentage of one-person households of all states.

6. Breaking Away! The State of Illinois is home to more taxing jurisdictions than any other FAR. If you count "general purpose" governments like cities, counties, and townships, and then add "special purpose" governments like mosquito abament districts, park districts, volunteer fire districts, library districts, etc. it all adds up to nearly 7,000 jurisdictions. The next-in-line? Pennsylvania with 4,871. What does this mean? If you want to break away from your city, you can, and people certainly do. Build a home in an unincorporated area where you have to pay less taxes, and you can pick-and-choose your services by creating smaller, special districts. Eventually, however, urban growth catches up and you get annexed by the growing metro area. This, my friends, is but one component of the Sprawl Machine!

7. Illinois is becoming a giant suburb of Chicago. Population trends in the past century show that while the Chicago metro area has leveled-off as a proportion of the total Illinois population, the population is mostly settling in the burbs. They're also LEAVING the city. While, indeed, certain neighborhoods are making a come-back, the overall central city population has  declined pretty consistently since the 1960s. It bounced back a little bit in 2000 thanks to Mexican immigration, but the city is shrinking while the counties around it are growing rapidly. The "CMAP" collar counties consist of Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Will, Kendall, and Kane Counties. Cook County is pretty much built-out. The fastest growth is taking place Kane, Kendall, Will, an McHenry. They're basically enormous growing suburbs.

8. ...and residents in the fastest growing counties are much more likely to drive alone to work. Even in the City of Chicago, one half of the entire population drives alone to work. They really have no choice.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting to see the growth in 2-person and single person dwellings, as a share of the whole. What do you think has driven this? I would guess this is mostly about periods of immigration and quickly eroding legacy cultural expectations, but I do wonder if there are specific tax and housing policies reinforcing it.

    I do wonder if these particular trends are reversible--as you say, most of the original residential areas near Chicago metro are pretty much built out, forcing people to move even further afield.

    Is the solution making it easier for people to get into existing metro areas--high speed rail, encouraging shared transportation--or is it better to offer incentives to companies willing to open offices in new developing areas or to adopt policies enabling virtual work?