The United States has become an increasingly urbanized society over the course of its history — reaching a tipping point just after the turn of the 20th century when urban dwellers outnumbered rural folks for the first time in the nation’s history. New technologies and changing economics made it so that there were more job opportunities in major cities than in the country and a new culture celebrating city life sprung up, thanks in large part to the advent of the automobile. By the 1960s nearly two-thirds of Americans lived in cities, and that number is north of 80% in the new millennium.
But with this urbanization has come new problems which have not been fully addressed. Transportation, infrastructure, and cost of living concerns are among the biggest challenges facing those who live in cities of all sizes, and as the large cities continue to grow these problems grow exponentially.
The most pressing of these for most people, especially for those under 50, is the rising cost of living. Buying a home in cities like New York and San Francisco is nearly impossible for the vast majority, and even midsize and smaller cities like Denver and Seattle are becoming more and more inaccessible by the day. Even the rental markets are becoming problematic as younger people flood in looking for economic opportunities.
Some cities, like Phoenix and Houston, have responded by continually expanded outward, keeping the market for homes well stocked and keeping prices down. It helps that regulations and zoning rules here are much lower than in most large cities, allowing for rapid construction. These cities also have the benefit of vast expanses of largely unused land in several directions to allow for urban sprawl — a luxury not available to older cities or those with natural barriers like oceans, rivers, and mountains.
Other cities have experienced other events allowing the costs to remain or become low, think Detroit’s utter economic collapse or New Orleans’ devastation by Hurricane Katrina. Of course, nobody wants these types of events to occur, but reaping the benefits of them are the frugal minded who expect the markets to rebound, or simply wish to own a home, regardless of whether the area it is in has economic opportunities. Like the urbanization of 100 years ago, modern technology allows for even more flexibility for where to live, as many can simply work from home using the internet.
Of course, we can’t discuss urbanization without discussing gentrification. Among the fastest growing cities, much of the growth has been among young white people, who find that the only places they can afford to purchase are in traditionally minority dominated neighborhoods, pushing older families out by increasing the cost of living there and by altering the character of the neighborhood. The radical shift of New York City serves as an example, and traditionally black dominated areas like Harlem and The Bronx are beginning to feel the strain.
Still others are looking elsewhere for ways to live more cheaply. Smaller cities and exurbs are starting to get the overflow of growth from the major metropolises — cities many outside of them have not heard of yet, but are destined to become major urban centers of their own. Examples may include Fredericksburg, Virginia and Stillwater, Oklahoma, which are poised to have housing booms of their own over the next decade or so but remain relatively cheap when compared with the nearest urban cities of Washington and Oklahoma City, respectively.
Interestingly, a reverse trend of younger people moving back to rural areas has not yet occurred, despite the much lower cost of living and housing in many small towns. Many have grown accustomed to city life and all that it carries with it — better transportation and infrastructure being among them, as well as bias against rural life as being crude and old-fashioned — earning many the elitist label given by those out in the country.
For others, it simply isn’t practical to do so. Despite the possibility of working remotely via an internet connection, the service available is much sparser and, in many cases, of a lower quality than in the cities. From the providers’ standpoint, this makes sense: Lower population density means fewer customers.
An even more interesting trend that has developed, however, is alternative housing. Tiny homes are experiencing heightened levels of interest among the younger set, as they take up very little space, are relatively inexpensive, and can easily be placed on cheap lots which are still near enough to the city to meet their needs. Some others consider tiny home communities to be nothing more than glorified trailer parks — elitism once more, but also practical from a long-term value point of view.
Still others have gone even further, opting to live in RVs or on houseboats. Renting a houseboat in a place like Portland, for example, could cost easily a third as much as renting an apartment or home — even including additional costs like fuel and marina or slip fees. RV or vandwelling are another matter, as many cities and towns have rules against living in a vehicle, considering it more or less adding to the problem of congestion and homelessness without contributing by paying property taxes or other fees. But for those who are participating in this trend, those are features, not bugs.
In any event, the urbanization in many major cities is beginning to reach a tipping point — if it hasn’t already gone over the edge. Soon some cities may consist primarily of the relatively wealthy while others experience massive urban flight. Either way, it is one of the most pressing economic issues of our time and, like most others, there are no easy solutions, and those who are able to adapt will thrive.