The Great American Slowdown

We're less mobile and more place-bound, and it's not just the recession that's slowing restless America's nomadic habits. This is good news for Seattle, the environment, and mossbacks.
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Carlos Padilla of Seattle (left) and Tania Santiago of Redmond speak in Olympia in support of a bill for undocumented students like themselves.

We're less mobile and more place-bound, and it's not just the recession that's slowing restless America's nomadic habits. This is good news for Seattle, the environment, and mossbacks.

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.

In short, being more place-bound, or place-enabled, helps actualize the Jane Jacobs ideal of what cities should be.

Not only is the Great Slowdown good for the environment and the nabes, it also allows urban greens to focus on the details that matter in making a more sustainable city function on the ground. While Mayor Greg Nickels operated as an enabler of big growth during the boom years, pushing for more and bigger high-rise developments and advocating for major road projects (Mercer Mess, the Waterfront tunnel), his priorities were often antithetical to the think-small mentality, and his centralizing of power actively alienated neighborhoods, especially on issues like planning.

The greens of the Mike McGinn era are faced with a different reality that combines a slower pace of development, economic austerity (massive city budget cuts, worries about tunnel costs), and the chance to make progress on ultra-local needs, from bike paths to wireless connectivity. Skepticism about the tunnel and the desire to re-wire the waterfront network, the plan to push for more neighborhood-to-neighborhood light rail, the reluctance to accept the assumption that mobility needs will only increase and cannot be re-routed, is all in-line with the new localist world of the Great Slowdown. While there is plenty of room to disagree about priorities and specifics, McGinn's approach seems much more in touch with the trend toward deepening community, not simply boosting its expansion. A "great city" is one that gets the details right for the people who live there.

But sad to report that there is still the tendency in the American media, and of course the business community, to disdain anything that is not reflexively pro-growth. The New York Times hosted an online forum of experts on the topic recently, but framed the issue as if America were in danger of becoming "a nation of hunkered down homebodies." Even the Brookings study, which documents the trend, hopes that new economic times will turn it around. "If migration did continue to would mark a sharp deviation from the long-term mobility and pioneering spirit that has characterized generations of Americans during most of this nation'ꀙs history." In other words, rootedness is anti-America, something to be ashamed of. Who wants to be a stagnant homebody? Who wants to lose our pioneering spirit?

Mobility is treated as if it were a virtue in itself, an act of nature, not policy, that has no real cost. Migration and immigration have benefits, of course, but also downsides, and public policy helps to create and drive them, whether the subsidies that created the transcontinental railroad, the homesteading laws that collided with drought to create the Dust Bowl exodus, or the building of the interstate highway system that drove sprawl. Too often we dismiss the benefits of place. Yes, place-bound folks can be provincial, exclusive, and insular, but rootedness is not a symptom of moral decay or economic failure. It brings substantial benefits too.

The idea that a mobile, un-rooted population is a better one devalues the very things that will make our communities more sustainable: commitment to shaping the places we live so that we can live there productively and happily for many generations. Family, stewardship, localism, roots, history, conservation, community, belonging, raising kids: Are these corrupting? Are these worse than the endless consumerism that treats places as disposable, as no-places?

The anti-roots bias also ignores technological shifts that make the provinces less provincial. For one thing, many of our technological innovations have come about in bedrooms and suburban garages, not skyscrapers inhabited by corporate high-fliers. In the age of the Internet, a person can be a pioneer in one's pajamas. Secondly, the access to global information and resources have broken down barriers that kept people isolated and uninformed. Third, more localism promises a more diverse, idiosyncratic and creative society that is less generic. Mobility is what enables our landscapes to be dotted with endless Applebees.

No one in America wants to be told where to live, and no one is suggesting that. We have the freedom to pursue happiness, wherever it might be. This is true not only of workers who have to uproot every time a company decides to shift jobs, but also for those members of the so-called "creative class" who migrate toward "coolness." Richard Florida, who is not an urban planner but an academic business booster based in Toronto, touts the highly educated and nomadic creatives as being on the cutting edge of making America's most vibrant cities, but he has been recently called out in the liberal American Prospect for embracing two opposing ideas. He at once encourages people abandon one less-hip city for another cooler one, especially in the downturn, while at the same time extolling the virtues of place.

Places, at least ones that aren't airports, are made by people who stay and dig in, not nomads or corporate hoppers like "Davos Man." In short, to be attractive to the "creative class" your community has to be unhip enough to survive its temporary infestations so that you have something left when they move on to the next Portland, Austin, or Raleigh-Durham.

The pursuit of happiness, as we learned in The Wizard of Oz, is best pursued in one's own backyard, a thought echoed in Kotkins' column title, "There's No Place Like Home." America, it seems, has been taking this lesson to heart increasingly during the last half-century. If you want to make America stronger, don't go West, young man. But stay put.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.