[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Sex and the City, Pregnancy and the Suburb?

Angela Jancius 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 
population densities.
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 
of Governments.

More information about the URBANTH-L mailing list