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Do Population Shifts Signal The End Of Suburbia?

October 09, 2013
Recently I listened to a radio interview with a journalist named Leigh Gallagher, who'd written a book called "The End of Suburbia." The station being NPR, I assumed it was another anti-sprawl polemic. But when I got hold of the book, I found out it was something new.

"This book isn't about why the suburbs ought to end," Gallagher wrote, "it's about how the suburbs … are ending." The American people are awakening from their suburban dream that began after World War II. They don't want to live in big houses with wide lawns and four-car garages, on streets without sidewalks, anymore. They are moving back to the cities and old inner suburbs.

Obviously this would be great news for my old inner suburb, University City, and for all of West End Word-land. But before I started buying up my neighborhood's vacant lots and putting out signs saying, "Welcome back, New Mellians!" I thought I'd better check if St. Louis was in line with the national trends Gallagher described.

According to her, population growth in outer suburbs has slowed to a crawl in the last couple of years. Big cities and inner suburbs are growing twice as fast. Let's look at local U.S. Census counts and projections to see if that's happening here.

I chose the county that boasts of being Missouri's fastest-growing, St. Charles. Its growth from 2000 to 2010 was impressive: from 283,883 to 360,485. Its population in 2012 was 368,666. So it added about 7,660 people a year from 2000-10, but only 4,090 from 2010 to 2012. I wouldn't call that crawling, but it's a significant drop-off.

The City of St. Louis is not in line with the national trend. It's not growing faster; in fact, it's still shrinking, from 348,185 in 2000 to 319,294 in 2010 to 318,172 in 2012. From that depressing picture, let's turn to the county, where the news is better.

St. Louis County's population declined from 1,016,315 in 2000 to 998,954 in 2010. But from 2010 to 2012, it's come back, edging over the million mark: 1,000,438.

The conclusion of this amateur statistician is that while the St. Louis metropolitan area is lagging the national trend (and we generally do lag national trends), the population shifts Gallagher describes are starting to happen here.

Gallagher's other key indicators concern car use, because people in outer suburbs depend on their cars. She says that Americans aren't buying as many cars as they used to, and 16-year-olds are delaying getting their licenses. (This latter fact is incredible to people of my generation, who remember rushing into the license bureau on our 16th birthdays, but the AAA has recently published research that supports Gallagher.)

Is this happening in Missouri? Yes. In 2003, there were 2,592,646 automobiles registered in the state. In 2011, it had dropped to 2,412,687 – though the state's population grew. The number of 16-year-old licensed drivers in 2003 was 38,463. In 2012, it was 34,731.

With statistics, of course, it's all in the interpretation. Other experts say that the figures Gallagher uses do not spell the decline and fall of outer suburbia. They say it's just the lingering recession. Once young people get their careers on track, they'll start buying cars and McMansions.

This assumes that young people want cars and McMansions.

Gallagher argues that they don't. Values and lifestyles have changed, and the rising generation feels that urban areas are better suited to their pursuit of happiness. Her analysis is interesting and I recommend reading the book. My own opinion is that we're not going to see St. Charles County revert to farm country. But the great westward tide has been running ever since St. Louis was founded. If it is ebbing at all, that's going to be a major change, and a promising one for eastern St. Louis County.

* * *

Mark Drucker, who died Aug. 12, was a true Central West Ender. For many years he lived in a Kingshighway high-rise and commuted by MetroLink to SIU-Edwardsville, where he was a professor of public policy. A New York native and an Ivy Leaguer, he settled happily in St. Louis, though he called it "a pizza-deprived town."

He was a man of wide interests, strong opinions and glittering wit. For 20 years, you would often find him at Big Sleep Books on Euclid, minding the store for owner Helen Simpson. He never accepted payment, Helen says: "We were great friends." Strollers on Euclid who dropped into Big Sleep were able to experience the vanishing pleasure of chatting with a bookseller who was there because he loved books, and had read practically everything in the shop.

Mark's name will live on. He lent it out freely to local mystery writers Robert J. Randisi and John Lutz. "I liked to give his name to notorious womanizers," said Lutz. "And he especially appreciated being murdered."

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