[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Sex and the City, Pregnancy and the Suburb?
jancius at ohio.edu
Mon May 21 13:52:12 EDT 2007
Sex and the City, Pregnancy and the Suburb?
21 May 2007 - 7:00am
Author: Sriram Khé, PhD
If a correlation exists between birth rates and urbanization, does the post
World War II baby boom owe its existence to urban sprawl?
Earth Day was an opportunity to think about a number of issues, including
about urban sprawl and population growth. And I kept coming back to the same
question: would birth rates and, therefore, population growth rates in the
US have been lower if we did not have the post-WWII urban sprawl?
I was a graduate student at USC many, many years ago when I first came
across studies by people like Richard Easterlin -- research that examined
the relationship between economic development, urbanization, and changes in
demographic patterns. Well, one of the lessons there was that the economic
transformation that societies underwent was accompanied by massive changes
in the spaces where people lived, so much so that rural population in
developed countries is now a very small percentage of the overall
population. The global story is not very different either; the Executive
Director of UN-Habitat, Anna Tibaijuka, recently remarked about the change
in spatial distribution of population: "2007 is a year when human beings
will become an urban species, homo urbanus. From now on the majority of
people will no longer be rural but urban. And there is no going back for
this demographic shift and transition is irreversible."
As the population moved to cities, people immediately recognized the costs
of having children. As opposed to the rural life where children might have
contributed to a family's earnings by working on the farm, for instance,
urban children required parents to invest both money and time in them. And
as adults became more and more engaged in modern economic activities in
urban areas, they found it increasingly difficult to invest the time and
money in children. Further, in the cities there was a premium to pay for
larger dwelling sizes too. To top it all, as women entered the workforce,
the opportunity cost of having children dramatically increased, which then
contributed to further decreases in fertility rates.
So, in this context, what if the post-war suburban growth had not happened
the way it did? What if the returning GIs had married, yes, but had
continued to live in densely populated cities? Of course, it is not easy to
estimate counterfactual historical scenarios that Niall Ferguson seems to
enjoy in his profession. Yet, it is difficult to resist speculating whether
the absence of suburban growth and urban sprawl might have changed the
recent demographic history of the US.
Studies that criticize urban sprawl often point at Western European
countries or Japan as examples of compact cities and smart growth. In these
countries, families and households live in units that are significantly
smaller than the average American dwelling unit. About two years ago, I
asked a visiting Japanese faculty from Saitama what according to her was the
biggest difference between Japan and the US. Without hesitation she replied
that it was the amount of space here in the US. Later in her guest lecture
in my class, my students could not believe that she and her son lived in an
800-square feet apartment.
Japan and Western European countries are also places where fertility rates
have steadily decreased since the end of WWII, to levels that are
significantly below replacement-levels. Interestingly enough, some of the
other areas with very low fertility rates -- such as Taiwan, Singapore, and
Hong Kong -- are also characterized by metropolitan areas with high
On the other hand, birthrates in the US did not precipitously fall after
WWII, as it did in Western Europe and Japan. The typical story of the
post-war years is one of GIs returning home, getting married, moving to the
Levitttowns across the US, and raising children. Immigration to the US and
their fertility rates do affect the story, no doubt, as does the withdrawal
of women from the workforce and back to the traditional roles of homemakers.
Counterfactually though, if there were no Levittown and no suburban
expansions, and if the young families had stayed back in the cities, then
would the cost of urban life have dampened the propensity to procreate,
particularly with the simultaneous technological advancements in family
planning and birth control? Was urban sprawl then a reason why the US did
not go the European route when it comes to birth rates? After all, even now
it appears that the more compact New England areas have lower birthrates
compared to the sprawling cities in the South and the West.
If such a counterfactual scenario is true, then it could imply that the
higher fertility rate in the US, compared to other developed countries, is
the unintended consequence of government subsidies in the form of freeway
and road building, low gas tax and, hence, relatively inexpensive gas,
deductibility of home mortgage interests from income taxes, etc. These
helped disperse the population from dense population settlements and led to
low density suburban settlements -- urban sprawl -- where fertility rates
are higher than rates in Western Europe.
Every once in a while, in the introductory geography class that I teach, I
ask students to collect fertility rate data on their respective families
going back to at least their grandparents and preferably back to their
great-grandparents. A typical trend that we then observe later in the class
discussions is that fertility rates have, as a class average, decreased over
the generations. The other trend we observe from their data is a correlation
between fertility rates and whether or not their mothers and grandmothers
lived in cities or the rural areas -- almost always students from large
families came from rural areas. Even these "micro" case studies highlight
the possibility that if Americans had stayed in cities in large numbers,
instead of moving to the suburbs, then the birthrates may have been much
lower. So, yet another reason to praise, or vilify, urban sprawl?
Sriram Khé is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Oregon
University. Prior to this, he taught at California State
University-Bakersfield, and was an Associate Planner with the Kern Council
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