How Can Cities Get Denser and Sprawl at the Same Time?

There’s a dispute about whether the movement toward city living is real. But this either/or battle is a distraction.
December 2016
San Francisco (Shutterstock)
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

California keeps getting more crowded -- and most of the arriving newcomers don’t live in single-family homes. Since 2010, builders in the state have constructed more apartments and condominiums than single-family dwellings -- about 25,000 more, to be precise. Just over 160,000 multifamily units have been built in California during that time, compared to only 135,000 single-family units.

But here’s something that may surprise you: More than half of the new multifamily apartment and condominium buildings are in just four cities -- Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco, the four largest in the state.

That’s a big change from historic trends, which showed that only about 20 percent of all multifamily units were built in the “big four” cities. Population growth in all four exceeds the state average -- further evidence of a move toward more urban living. And it signals another trend: the concentration of dense urban development in a few cities and older suburbs.

There’s been a lot of dispute over the past few years as to whether the movement toward city living is real. Advocates point to growing population numbers in cities, while critics say that most people are still moving to the suburbs.

This either/or battle is a distraction. The important point is that both trends are happening -- and this is making the central parts of America’s metropolitan regions more and more different from the edges. On the edges, people live in single-family homes and drive almost everywhere. In the center, people live in apartments and don’t drive very much. The edges have more people. But the center is generally where the political and business elite live, where amenities are located, and where good jobs are concentrated. It’s where most innovation occurs.

The bifurcation numbers are dramatic indeed. For example, in Southern California, multifamily units accounted for almost 80 percent of new construction in land-poor coastal regions such as Los Angeles and Orange counties. But in the land-rich counties farther inland, the percentage was almost completely reversed.

This growing bifurcation has profound consequences -- not just for how cities function but also for how people relate to one another. The bifurcation is an almost perfect reflection of America’s deepest divides -- political, social, cultural and ethnic. If you draw a political map of America, the dividing line between red and blue tends to fall just where the construction of single-family housing ends and the construction of multifamily housing begins. The denser places are, the bluer they are.

In many ways, this cultural dividing line isn’t new. The urban-rural divide goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and it has emerged again and again in American history. It may well be that change and innovation can bridge this divide to some extent. The shared economy, for example, may well thrive in both the city and the suburbs. But it’s hard to imagine that America’s cultural divide will heal as the bifurcation grows.