Developers love predicting that growth is unstoppable and inevitable, but the Great Recession is showing how untrue this really is. Some previously booming areas of the country are now declining in population, especially the Sun Belt and parts of the West. More people are now moving out of Florida, Nevada and California than are moving in. The huge growth in recent decades was driven not by their inherent desirability but by bad banking and loan practices that artificially goosed development and made growth a business in and of itself. Americans were encouraged to be on the move because their mobility was exploitable by banks, builders and Wall Street.
But the Great American Slowdown is a bigger trend. A new Brookings Institution study finds that domestic migration is at post-war lows and has been steadily sliding for the last half century. In the 1950s and '60s, 20 percent of Americans changed homes every year. In the boom 1990s, it was 16 percent. But in the last two years, it's dropped to just over 12 percent. Americans are becoming more place-bound. It's partly due to an aging population, and higher rates of homeownership. But the current downturn has speeded the trend having "cemented" many people in place, says the Washington Post. You can't sell a home, buy a home, or find a job, so make the best of where you are.
Not every region is static or losing population. Some areas are still growing, Seattle among them, and migration is often related to local conditions that aren't strictly economic. Parts of Texas have boomed, for example, because of hurricane Katrina's diaspora. Suburban and exurban growth has slowed with the building boom. While some cities draw more people, others, like Detroit, are hollowing out as domestic industrial jobs have vaporized.
But the numbers suggest that Americans are sinking their roots deeper and for longer wherever they are. Baby boomer retirees seem to be forsaking the Sun Belt while even younger people, who migrate the most, often find themselves returning to their parents' comfortable nests as part of the "Boomerang" syndrome. In 2008-09, the migration rates of twentysomethings was cut in half, according to the Brookings report.
As a Northwest mossback, I can't help but see this as good news, a trend that will benefit Seattle in the long run. Especially if it helps move economic development away from the "Greater Seattle" or "world-class city" syndrome to focus more on local, even micro, development, the shaping of our home, through boomtimes and busts.
Some, like Joel Kotkin, author and urban futures fellow at Chapman College, predict a new era of "localism." People will become more rooted in their community, be it city, suburb or country village. Family ties will also become stronger, and in fact already are as Boomers become caretakers for their aging parents and their own off-spring return to the nest. At the same time, the ability to work at home or Starbucks and the access global information makes mobility easier but pulling up stakes or even commuting less necessary. The Gates Foundation can function from a provincial capital like Seattle, it doesn't need to be in a world center like London or New York. Many workers can have the benefits of village life, and of being plugged into the world, without cutting down the forests for new housing, or widening their carbon footprint with Atlas Van Lines or a freeway commute.
If workers can operate from home, and this trend is growing, they will spend less time commuting and can invest more of themselves closer to home, says Kotkin:
These home-based workers become critical to the localist economy. They will eat in local restaurants, attend fairs and festivals, take their kids to soccer practices, ballet lessons, or religious youth-group meetings. This is not merely a suburban phenomenon; localism also means a stronger sense of identity for urban neighborhoods as well as smaller towns.
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