America’s urban renaissance is a meme that has gained a lot of traction in media since the financial reset of 2008, but census figures released yesterday suggest that things are (to misquote David Byrne of Talking Heads) the same as they ever were. America’s most urban counties continue to bleed residents to the suburbs. This is true across the country but nowhere more so than in the Rust Belt.
I’ve written about this before. It certainly meshes with what I’ve seen on the ground as I travel around the United States. Indianapolis offers a representative snapshot. In spite of local officials pouring billions of dollars into downtown and the presence of a loud and passionate new urbanist contingent, Indianapolis-area residents continue to flee the urban core for the donut counties and communities like Carmel, Noblesville and Zionsville.
Interestingly enough, Carmel (pop 86,000) is rapidly approaching the urban core (Center Township, population 142,000) in terms of total number of people who choose to live there. This is not insignificant. People have been fleeing Center Township since the 1950s when the population peaked at 337,000. In real numbers, the urban core has lost almost 60% of peak population. That’s an incredible loss over a sustained period of time. Sorry, new urbanists, but suburbia is still winning the battle for hearts and souls, just as it has since the end of World War Two.
This is not necessarily bad news. The suburban areas that are doing the best are those that have staked their future on bicycle and pedestrian movement. Take, Carmel Indiana, for example. This “suburb” of Indianapolis has, in many ways, supplanted Indianapolis as the urban core. This is where most of the growth is occurring. This is where most forward thinking ideas originate. The folks downtown, by and large, are clinging to a model that no longer works. The future of America is decentralized. Places that thrive won’t have one big core, but lots of little nodes where people can easily access resources on foot or a bicycle.
Carmel has aggressively implemented traffic calming measures. It may have more roundabouts than any other community in America. Most arterials have bicycle and pedestrian side paths. The critically acclaimed Monon Trail cuts through the heart of the city. Unlike in Indianapolis where there are dangerous road crossings, here there are bridges and tunnels across arterials. It’s well thought out and integrated rather than slopped together.
What’s happening in Carmel is also happening elsewhere. Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto Ontario, looks like the core of most mid-sized American cities. Dallas County Iowa, west of Des Moines is one of the five fastest growing counties in the United States. Officials there recently unveiled plans to expand a regional park replete with bike routes. The park is already the area’s most popular attraction and gathering place according to TripAdvisor. Imagine that, a suburb where people congregate in a park instead of a mall.
Today’s most successful suburbs don’t look anything like those of old. Carmel feels more like a European village than the type of cornfield-gobbling sprawl so often associated with Midwestern suburbs. Mississauga looks more like a big city than an edge city. It isn’t surprising to me that people are choosing to live in these places. They’re attractive, pleasant and relatively safe. They can be easily navigated on a bicycle, even with kids. This is our future. If you live in one of these places, engage with local officials. Bicycle friendliness isn’t just for young urban hipsters. It’s a suburban thing, too, and the suburbs who do it best are the ones that have the brightest futures.