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Cities or suburbs: Searching for the new land of opportunity

Cities or suburbs: Searching for the new land of opportunity
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Cities are more eco-friendly than suburbs, if only because they're more compact.

So you've got a kid, a newly formed adult, who is ready to launch. Where should you advise him or her to set up housekeeping?

Some 150 years ago, you might have said, "Go west." That's where the opportunities lay. By the end of World War I, the hot destinations had become New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cosmopolitan centers that could offer nightlife, stimulation and excitement. (Apparently, you couldn't keep 'em down on the farm after they'd seen Paree.) After the Great Depression and World War II, the young Americans who lived through them opted for the reassuring blandness of suburbs. (Of course, subsidies for homeownership and highways pushed them along.)

These days we're hearing that cities are making a comeback. To planners, civic leaders and others concerned about climate change and the environment, such an evolution makes good sense. Cities, no matter how bad their slums, are more eco-friendly than suburbs, if only because they're more compact.

Writing in the National Geographic, Robert Kunzig, the science journalist, makes the case: "Their roads, sewers, and power lines are shorter and so use fewer resources. Their apartments take less energy to heat, cool, and light than do houses. Most important, people in dense cities drive less. Their destinations are close enough to walk to, and enough people are going to the same places to make public transit practical. In cities like New York, per capita energy use and carbon emissions are much lower than the national average."

And there's a school of thought that cities will offer more economic opportunity. Opportunity comes from economic growth, and conventional wisdom argues that human capital, meaning educated people, fuel growth. 

So where is human capital gathering? Well, Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” and his colleagues, mapped out the distribution of human capital to see which had the most, cities or suburbs. To figure this out, they looked at percentages of adults with bachelor's degrees in the cities and suburbs of 331 metropolitan areas.

The result: you can find intellectual nirvana in either city or suburb; you merely have to choose the right city -- but generally in cities with populations over one million. For example, the center cities of Raleigh-Durham, Seattle and San Francisco had the largest shares of college grads, all about 45 percent. Minneapolis-St. Paul came in 10th with 35 percent -- not bad for the 15th largest metro.

Suburban winners

But suburbs have their winners too. Just over half of adults in San Jose, Calif., suburbs have bachelor's degrees, followed by San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Denver and New York, however, have larger shares of degree-holders in their suburbs than in the central city. Twin Cities suburbs fare not too badly with a share of 32.74 percent. (Researchers are measuring degree-holders in the population as a whole. Percentages of degree holders in the labor force would be higher, according to researcher Charlotta Mellander, a professor of economics at   Jönköping International Business School in Sweden, who did a good deal of the number-crunching.)

But do young people really want to live in mega-cities?

The evidence, as it turns out, is mixed.

Percentage of college grads in inner cities
Source: Martin Prosperity Institute

A 2011 report undertaken by CEOs for Cities, a research organization for urban leaders, claims that since 2000, the number of college-educated 25-34 year-olds has increased twice as fast in the close-in neighborhoods of large cities as in the outskirts of the same metros -- 26 percent as opposed to 13 percent. From that, you could argue that, if you're young, cities are where the action is. More young people are there, and presumably there's more of what they want, like gastropubs and movie theaters and -- I don't know, I'm not young.

But there's a counter-argument to all this, says Joel Kotkin, executive editor of He points to the fact that it is small and mid-sized cities with populations of one million or less that are adding jobs the fastest. The three exceptions -- Austin, Houston and Salt Lake City -- are themselves like giant suburbs. Some of the smaller towns (Odessa, Midland and Corpus Christi, Texas) are heirs to the energy boom, but Kotkin points to less likely growth centers: Glens Falls, N.Y. (a tourist destination), Columbia, Mo. (a college and government town) and Williamsport, Pa. (a revived manufacturing area).

Growth rates

Another point: In the last decade, large metros grew at an overall rate of about 9 percent while metros under one million grew by 15 percent. That shift from the previous trend, when the large cities gained most, is probably due to rather ordinary factors.  People want shorter commutes; and a smaller city may be more navigable and livable than a mega-city like New York or San Francisco.

It's certainly more affordable. Kotkin argues that Americans still overwhelmingly prefer living in detached single-family houses. A survey by the National Association of Realtors found that only 7 percent of respondents said they would like to live in a dense area that was close to everything. Eighty-seven percent hankered for the backyard and picket fence. Such housing in large metros is a budget-buster for most families. They are more likely to find the room and amenities in the more modestly priced areas of small cities. 

With all that, young people may be able to be successful in some small cities, most large cities or the suburbs of some large cities as long as they choose a place with job growth in their field and reasonably priced housing (if that's what they want). Not so great are the suburbs of smaller cities, and, sadly, I guess, nobody is even mentioning small rural towns.

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Comments (12)

The Map is a Bit Deceptive

in that a good number of the green shades fall far outside what demographers would consider a "large" city. But they certainly do correspond to the locations of colleges and universities. Just the ones seen in non-MSP Minnesota and the Dakotas indicates that. Look also at portions of Oklahoma, or Iowa or Montana and you can see the correlation. This should not be a surprise.

I miss Steve Berg

So, jobs is the answer? Not sure what question this article is trying to answer. Yes, there are jobs in suburbs and cities, and people move to the suburbs or cities because of said jobs - nothing new here. And if small cities blur the line between cities and suburbs, and people are moving in large numbers to suburbs, small cities, and large cities, shouldn't the question be suburbs AND cities, versus the combative narrative of suburbs OR cities?

Additionally, young people are only one part of the equation... what about empty-nesters and retirees? The change in demographics of households is also a significant contributing factor to how cities and suburbs alike will evolve in the years ahead. Both need to be adaptive, together, for regions to prosper.

Finally, don't be deceived by absolute and relative growth rates. A 9% growth rate in a megacity of 10 million is 900,000 people (nothing to shrug off), while a 15% growth rate in a small city of 1 million is 'only' 150,000. (Plus, there is much more room for growth in smaller cities, whereas mega-cities are generally built out.)

Yeah, that map..

Obviously those aren't cities, those are entire counties and groups of counties. MPLS and St. Paul don't stretch all the way to the Wisconsin border and beyond. Nor do they extend more almost half way into central MN.

No, this is screwed up

There's something seriously wrong with the data these guys are using. According to the census St. Louis Park has a B.A. incidence of 53% compared to MPLS 45%. Edina's even higher with 64%. Woodbury's 56%. St. Paul's 37%. The cities appear to be surrounded by suburbs with more educated people, this is contrary to the thesis. If they can't crunch these numbers why should we trust the other numbers they crunched? So people are moving to population centers, duh that's why they're population centers. Not the same as moving to "cities". Well, I guess St. Louis Park is a "city".

This is the problem with non-peer reviewed "studies" and "reports".


You're taking a small sampling, the Twin Cities, and applying it to the country at large. That's like looking at the road in front of your house, seeing it's in good condition, and declaring that no roads anywhere in the country have potholes.

I'm not saying the study's foundings are sound, but rather that yours definitely are not.


OK, so I took another 4 minutes, Chicago has a B.A. incidence of 33%, Evanston to the north: 64%, Oak Park to the south, 67%, Park Ridge, 51%. I have a feeling this is the actual pattern in most cities. Try it for yourself, pick a city.

I hate to say but the other points are suspect as well

So the guy from National Geographic says this: "Writing in the National Geographic, Robert Kunzig, the science journalist, makes the case: "Their roads, sewers, and power lines are shorter and so use fewer resources. Their apartments take less energy to heat, cool, and light than do houses. Most important, people in dense cities drive less. Their destinations are close enough to walk to, and enough people are going to the same places to make public transit practical. In cities like New York, per capita energy use and carbon emissions are much lower than the national average."

There's a lot of unsupported assumptions here. Yes, if were designing a community from scratch the more compact nature of a city would be efficient but in reality all of our cities are hundred years old or older. That mean the water, sewer, power, streets, and other infrastructure are old and decaying, in need of constant repair and replacement. The housing stock in most our cities is also a nearly a century old be it houses or apartment buildings. Is this housing really more energy efficient than my 1950s era house with energy efficient windows and modern insulation?

When you factor in the constants repairs and replacements and the age of the infrastructure and housing is it really less expensive to support a person in a city than in a suburb?

On the face of the pro city bias appears to be false. The city of MPLS has a total budget of $1.7 billion and a populatoin of 388,000, that breaks down to $4,381 per person. The city of St. Louis Park has a a budget of $30 million with a population of 46,000, that breaks down to $625 per person. Now SLP doesn't have convention centers and sports arenas but even if you take those out of the MPLS budget you not going to tip the balance in favor of MPLS. If the city is so much more efficient why does it cost so much more per capita?

Transportation in the city likewise is supposed to be more efficient, and yes in theory if one built a city from scratch with good public transportation it would be. But in reality there are more cars on the streets of MPLS than there are SLP. In fact the traffic make MPLS air quality considerably worse than the suburbs. We now have studies demonstrating it's less healthy to ride a bike downtown than it is to ride on the Greenway. Sure, in theory people in cities walk, in fact until recently there was no grocery story downtown and people in MPLS shop at supermarkets with parking lots just as big and full as those in the suburbs. The streets of New York are likewise clogged with traffic for most of the day.

I don't know why concentrated consumption and waste is necessarily more environmentally friendly than more dispersed population, especially in cities that a century old.

Look, I don't believe in sprawl. I can see why certain densities are preferable and more efficient than mcmansions on two acre lots. I just want to see some actual data behind these assumptions. Show me don't tell me. Obviously some of these assumptions aren't as solid as a lot of people like to pretend.

Good Discussion

These are excellent questions, well worth researching. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the numbers at my fingertips, nor do I have the time to do justice to such a research endeavor. So that leaves speculation and more questions.

About the per-capita budget, I think it's fair to assume that a good portion of that budget goes to serving people that don't actually live in Minneapolis. A lot of workers commute from the suburbs, for example. Then there is the fact of concentrated poverty and all of the expenses that brings. I'm not saying these explain all of the discrepancy but they almost certainly play a large role. And yes, the infrastructure is older and costs more to fix and maintain. The suburbs will get to that point all on their own.

As for transportation, there are more people in the city so naturally there will be more traffic. Remember those commuters? 40% of them travel to downtown Minneapolis using transit. That is certainly a much higher rate than observed in any other city in the metro area. The most efficient bus routes are in the central cities. There is something to density and efficient transportation.

Transit and decay

Mass transit should be more efficient, and I'm sure for the most part it is, the question is to what degree? There's transit and then there's transit. The Twin Cities primarily rely on buses that get 6-8 miles per gallon. Sure during rush hour those buses are moving 80 people, but they run all day. I've been on buses at 11:00 in the morning and evening that have 5-6 riders on them. Meanwhile my 30 MPG Honda Civic makes one trip a day on average to and from St. Paul. By the way it makes that trip with four passengers because the employer encourages car pools. In San Francisco they have a lot of electric buses and those are way more efficient. I'm just saying these comparisons can be much more complex than they appear to be at first.

As for decaying infrastructure St. Louis Park is actually in the midst of replacing all of it's road, water, storm drains, and gas lines, so that's already under way for $625 per person, there's no additional assessment. We got our new street with better water, storm, and gas lines and new curbs last year.

I see the point on commuters. I think it's safe to assume that the population of MPLS increases during the day and some evenings while it decreases in the suburbs. But consider this: even if the population of MPLS quadrupled during the day, it still wouldn't bring the cost down to that of SLP.

We're being told that those people are walking and transiting instead of driving. But if that's true why do they have so many cars? Try to find street parking Uptown after 6:00. I know three people who live in Downtown MPLS, they all drive to work in St. Paul. That may well change however when the central corridor opens. Of course I also know people who live downtown St. Paul and walk to work.

I'm not pretending to completely refute urbanists claims, I'm just suggesting there may be a much wider gap between theory and reality than many urbanists might suspect.

I think instead of blanket claims about higher density it would be helpful to see comparisons of different densities from real American cities. I have no difficulty believing that housing 20 miles away from central cities is less efficient and less environmentally friendly. But as you get closer to the city things get more complex. I don't know why we don't see real world break downs of these densities and comparable efficiencies.


A previous City Scape explored the rivalry with Portland so just for giggles I went over and checked it out. It's funny. Portland does follow the trend described in the article in that it has a higher incidence of B.A.s than it's surrounding suburbs. However, it's incidence is only 44%! If you zoom out and look at the counties it gets worse, the three counties containing Portland have B.A. incidences ranging from 31% to 38%. For comparison Hennepin County comes out at 45% (slightly higher than Portland itself) and Ramsey County comes in at 39%. MPLS surrounding suburbs have much higher rates.

So the Twin Cities with all our bad planning and sprawl actually out perform Portland on this measure!

Good debunking done

I have cited similar math on this site as Mr. Udstrand's and I am a bit still confused as to why cities people keep insisting that central cities are more efficient. Looks like a research project for the U.

Or maybe I should just call myself a center and crunch the numbers.

This seems to be another article that needed a bit more critical examination of the original premise.

I also miss the Steves

It might be time for the revolving door of Cityscape writers to take another spin. Surely MinnPost can do better than this haphazard blogging. At this point, I'd be happy if you just syndicated the best posts from