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The Age of the Great Dispersal:
Despite "Smart Growth" Entreaties, Outward Migration Continues

Attempts to artificially throttle suburban growth through "smart growth" policies have been unsuccessful, according to recently released Census data. "We are living in the age of the great dispersal" writes David Brooks, an astute observer of demographic trends, in a recent article ("Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia," New York Times Sunday Magazine, April 4, 2004). "Americans continue to move from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West, but the truly historic migration is from the inner suburbs to the outer suburbs, to the suburbs of suburbia. From New Hampshire down to Georgia, across Texas to Arizona and up through California, you now have the booming exurban sprawls that have broken free of the gravitational pull of the cities and now float in a new space far beyond them."

A graphic case in point: the sprawling Washington metropolitan region which extends from Chesapeake Bay in the east to the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in the west, and from Pennsylvania's border in the north to Fredericksburg in the south. The region includes Virginia's Loudoun County– the county that has grown the fastest in the nation in the first three years of this century according to recently released Census Bureau figures. Since the late 1990s, Loudoun has been a battlefield between advocates of development and those of slow-growth. A new Board of Supervisors, elected last November in reaction to their predecessors' restrictive growth policies, reversed many of the growth curbs enacted earlier. The vote was seen as a clear repudiation of the former board's "elitist" policy that sought to stop dispersal by channeling growth into existing middle class communities in the eastern portion of the county, and sheltering from further suburbanization wealthy landowners and their pastoral estates in western Loudoun's horse country.

Explosive suburban growth in the Washington region is not confined just to Loudoun County. Further to the south in Virginia, Prince William and Stafford Counties have also been among the fastest growing counties in the nation. To the east, Calvert County, Maryland has experienced the highest growth rate over the past three years since the late 1960s.

To some extent, this exurban dispersal has been aided by efforts to protect open spaces. Montgomery County, Maryland, created its vaunted "agricultural reserve" in 1980, limiting development in those areas to just one house per 25 acres. Fairfax County, Virginia, followed in 1982, restricting home construction in the Occoquan area to one house per five acres. Howard and Frederick Counties in Maryland and Fauquier County in Virginia all have designated portions of their land area as protected, with housing limited to no more than one house per three to five acres. Planning experts and environmentalists now acknowledge that these restriction have had an unintended effect of pushing residential and commercial development even farther out into semi-rural areas. The policies of open space preservation seldom have achieved their advocates' intended aim of encouraging more concentrated development in the older inner-ring suburbs or within city limits. In these more established areas, developable land is scarce and expensive and opposition to infill development is strong. For developers, the path of least resistance has been to leap over the protected areas and build where zoning is more permissive and land is still plentiful and cheap.

The Washington region is not alone in spreading rapidly outward. Ranking next to Loudoun, the four fastest growing counties since the year 2000 have all been in outer suburbia: Douglas County outside Denver; Rockwell County outside Dallas; and Forsyth and Henry Counties outside Atlanta.

As urban dispersal continues, the outer suburbs are becoming more complex. Writes Brooks: "We are having a hard time understanding the cultural implications of this new landscape because when it comes to suburbia, our imaginations are motionless. Many of us still live with the suburban stereotypes laid down by the first wave of suburban critics – that the suburbs are dull, white-bread kind of places where Ozzie and Harriet families go to raise their kids. But there are no people so conformist as those who fault the supposed conformity of the suburbs. They regurgitate the same critiques decade after decade, regardless of the suburban reality flowering around them."
That reality, contends Brooks, is very different. Far from being bland, shallow, superficial and spiritually vacuous, today's suburbia is diverse, vibrant and full of different subcultures — from "crunchy suburbs" in Vermont, Massachusetts or Oregon, with their organic food co-ops, pottery galleries and sandal-trotting denizens; to upscale suburban town centers packed with tony restaurants and fashionable boutiques; to immigrant-heavy communities with small Asian groceries, Korean megachurches, and multi-lingual populations; to fresh, neat and comfortable suburban subdivisions and gated communities, populated by hard-working upwardly mobile strivers in pursuit of the American Dream. The endless flow of novels, movies and anti-sprawl tracts lamenting the shallow conformity of suburban life, says Brooks, "don't get suburbia right. They don't get America right."

The most recent Census Bureau data, documenting demographic trends since the 2000 Census, suggest that the "smart growth" movement is having little influence on reshaping America's urban landscape. The demographic and economic forces driving metropolitan expansion are too powerful to be reined in by the entreaties of smart growth advocates. The biggest factor influencing future population movements is the projected addition of some 64 million people by 2020. It is hard to conceive that this population bulge could be accommodated in existing built-up areas where neighborhood opposition to increasing density through infill development already is fierce. We agree with David Brooks that these factors are making the continued dispersal of urban population and economic activity inevitable.

Future historians are likely to view the "smart growth" movement as yet another example of a planning ideology that has foundered for lack of a realistic understanding of the power of demographic pressures, market forces and consumer preferences.

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