Peak Sprawl? The Fringes of the New York Region Are Shrinking

Image: Rutgers University
While the urban core shrank and the fringes grew between 1950 and 1980, the inverse has been true since 2010, with urban counties growing fastest, and counties on the edge of the region losing population. Image: Rutgers University

A new report out of Rutgers University [PDF] reveals that since 2010, the fringes of the New York region have lost population as the core has grown, a reversal of the sprawling pattern that predominated starting in 1950, when the suburbs grew and the city shrank.

The report compares regional growth between 1950 and 1980 to the three-year trend gleaned from the most recent available data, covering 2010 to 2013. Authors James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and Joseph J. Seneca, a professor at the school, say recent shifts may signal the beginning of a long-term change toward more compact growth, while acknowledging that it’s too early to conclusively say so.

In 1954, Hans Blumenfeld published “The Tidal Wave of Metropolitan Expansion” in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners, using demographic trends in the Philadelphia area to accurately forecast a surge of growth for suburban counties in the coming decades. The Rutgers report could be an early indication that a new chapter in regional growth is already underway.

The report looks at a 35-county region covering four states. From 1950 to 1980, the region grew by nearly 29 percent, adding more than 4.4 million people. Population in the 27 suburban counties nearly doubled, far outpacing the national growth rate. At the same time, the core counties in New York City and Essex, Hudson, and Union counties in New Jersey lost more than 850,000 people, or 8.7 percent.

Since 2010, the trend has nearly reversed, even as the region continued to gain population. Suburban counties kept growing, but at barely a fifth of the annual rate seen in earlier decades. The highest growth rates were in inner ring locations like Bergen, Westchester, and Fairfield counties. In contrast, there were actual population losses in nearly half of the suburban counties, almost entirely on the fringe of the region, including Putnam, Dutchess, Sullivan, and Ulster counties in New York, and Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey.

Growth since 2010 has been concentrated in the core counties, accounting for 69 percent of the region’s total population growth. The gains have been so strong, core counties have added about 30 percent as many people in the past three years as they lost in the 30 years after 1950.

The report says young adults between the ages of 20 and 29 are behind both of these trends. From 1970 to 1980, suburban counties captured 96 percent of the growth in this demographic. From 2010 to 2013, that figure dropped to 56 percent, with the urban core becoming increasingly competitive.

The authors say it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this demographic shift is happening, but cite quality-of-life improvements in the urban core, generational preferences, the high cost of long commutes, and the lower maintenance needs of denser housing in the urban core. They raise two notes of caution, however, saying that ingrained incentives for car and home ownership, as well as underperforming school districts, could work against the demographic shift back to the core.

“Americans’ stubborn love affair with large vehicles, cheap gas, and free roads is still a powerful force working to maintain population dispersal,” they write. “Whether that will translate into a resurgent demand for single-family homes on large lots remains to be seen.”

  • I give James Hughes credit for acknowledging, even if tentatively, a possibility he blithely but specifically dismissed two decades ago at a meeting of transit-oriented folks, including those-fool-advocates-who-don’t-know-any-better.

    Moreover, Mr. Hughes’ present-day caution, in my view, is warranted: The current trend is tenuous at best. But the trend is there, even if ephemeral.

  • BBnet3000

    Are Putnam/Dutchess/Ulster counties really the fringes of the metro area? I would definitely say that they are outside of the metro area despite some amount of supercommuters coming from there. You’ll know we’ve reached peak sprawl when Suffolk and Rockland stop growing, which they have not.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The fringe counties have enough aging housing to have a rising number of empty nesters. If new home development stops, the population drops even if the number of housing units and occupied housing units does not.

    The cities went through a similar phase after 1950, when young families moved out to buy houses but the city housing remained occupied by seniors.

  • Charles

    A note of caution: The conclusions appear to be based on census bureau estimates, which have a spotty record lately: http://www.newgeography.com/content/003877-is-census-bureau-on-track-for-another-estimating-fiasco

  • HamTech87

    While this is a good development from an anti-sprawl perspective, I’d like to see some more detail. Places like the downtowns and adjacent neighborhoods of Newburgh and Poughkeepsie could use some population increases.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I am skeptical. The decline is only based on the trend from 2010 to 2013, which were atypical years economically because the US was still facing the aftermath of the Great Recession. When and if middle-class incomes start to grow again, the populations of these sprawl-counties might start to increase again.

  • Bobberooni

    I agree, this study is flawed for many reasons.

    First of all, the overall population trend in the USA is (and has been for a long time) one out of rural areas and into metropolitan areas. Recently, the largest metropolitan areas have been pulling ahead of the rest in a kind of “winner takes all” dynamic. If you draw a big enough circle around any city, you will include some rural areas in it, which you would expect are going to be shrinking. So it is no surprise that these rural counties, most of them deep in the mountains, lacking the possibility of suitable infrastructure and 2+ hours from Manhattan, are shrinking.

    The rate of shrinkage is also not shown. If a fringe rural county with 10,000 people lost 300, is that really evidence for the end of sprawl? It would be nice if they’d shown us actual numbers, or shading to indicate how MUCH or LITTLE each county is growing/shrinking.

    One must consider the geography of the New York region as well. New York is pretty “built out”, right up to the Appalachian mountains. That kind of physical barrier is usually pretty effective at putting an end to sprawl (see SF, LA, etc). In spite of that, Orange County (in the mountains) continues to grow. This is NOT evidence of the end of sprawl, but rather evidence of continued sprawl in the face of significant physical barriers.

    One BIG problem with this study is they seem to evaluate counties solely on their relationship to Manhattan. But the counties in this map are very different from each other. Bucks County is considered suburban PHILADELPHIA. Most of the shrinking counties are mountainous rural counties with little development potential, and 2+ hr from Manhattan besides.

    Meanwhile, New Haven County is its own metropolitan region separate from NYC — again, because it is 2+ hours from Manhattan. The NYC suburbs end at Fairfield (based on who gets on/off the train), leaving everything beyond distinctly OUTSIDE the New York suburban region. New Haven has long been considered one of the 10 poorest cities in the USA, never a NYC suburb.

    If New Haven County is losing population, that is an indication that in spite of good infrastructure and moderate cost of living, that medium size cities are not currently able to compete with the draw of New York. Which I’m not sure is a good thing, in terms of quality of life. Are we REALLY ready to cheer the strangulation of all cities except the biggest? Does it REALLY make sense to be tearing down perfectly good housing in New Haven and Bridgeport, even as we try to build more in Brooklyn at many times the construction cost?

    But before we bemoan the state of the New Haven economy, I should point out that New Haven has had the tightest rental market for the past few years (yes, lower vacancy than NYC, but not as expensive). Several hip new downtown rental communities have been built, and the number of New Haven residents has been slowly rising. If New Haven County is shrinking, it’s coming from the New Haven suburbs, not the city — which I suppose would support the premise of the “end of sprawl,” at least in the localized New Haven region.

    And then there’s Monmouth County. Its shrinkage probably had to do with people being flooded out in Hurricane Sandy, and some of them accepting buy-out offers from the Feds / state of NJ. We should applaud the end of taxpayer-insured risky coastal development, but I’m not sure what this says about the end of sprawl.

    In the end, I don’t think this study shows much of anything, other than an unfortunate Manhattan-centric point of view. Not everybody commutes to Manhattan (or wants to).

  • realposter

    Ulster is outside of it… but Putnam most certainly is… Dutchess certainly is below Poughkeepsie. Poughkeepsie is actually closer to NYC than the east end of Suffolk County.

  • Benjamin de la Pena

    “When and if middle-class incomes start to grow again” -ah, there’s the rub.

    “Middle-class incomes have been stagnant for at least a generation,” -CNNMoney, 2011

    “After adjusting for inflation, U.S. median household income is still 8 percent lower than it was before the recession, 9 percent lower than at its peak in 1999, and essentially unchanged since the end of the Reagan administration.” FiveThirtyEight, Sept. 2014

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