[This article originally appeared in Liberty Watch magazine.]
Michael Barone wrote recently, "Demography is destiny." In his article for Opinion Journal, he pointed out that America's population has doubled since 1950, from 150 to 301 million people. But population isn't growing evenly. Detroit now has less than half the population it had in 1950, and people are fleeing the large urban coastal cities. Left behind are the very affluent who can afford to pay the outrageous taxes and cost of living, along with low-wage immigrants to serve them. "The economic divide in New York and Los Angeles is starting to look like the economic divide in Mexico City and São Paulo," observed Barone.
So where are the middle class working stiffs and ambitious entrepreneurs moving? That question is answered in Boomburbs: The Rise of America's Accidental Cities. Authors Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFurgy reveal that America's fastest growing cities are overgrown suburbs.
Lang and LeFurgy list 54 boomburbs located in 25 major metro areas. To qualify as a boomburb, a city must be: incorporated, suburban, have a population of at least 100,000, not be the core city of their region, and have had at least double-digit population growth in each census since 1970.
Cities in California dominate the list, but the biggest boomburb is Mesa, Ariz. with a 2000 population of just short of 400,000, making it larger than Minneapolis, Miami and St. Louis. Even relatively small boomburbs, Chandler, Ariz. and Henderson, Nev. are larger than older established mid-sized cities like Providence, R.I. and Worcester, Mass.
The City of North Las Vegas is featured prominently in the book, being the second fastest growing U.S. city since 2000. In 2003, NLV had just more than 144,000 residents, but expects to grow to more than 450,000 by the year 2020. However, the cumbersome and political Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land-auction process could derail this expected growth.
It's clear the authors spent considerable time with NLV mayor Mike Montandon. "But one thing does seem likely," Lang and LeFurgy write, "that the city [NLV] will use whatever land it gets to build upscale, master-planned communities." Montandon has always let it be known that he wants more upscale housing in NLV, because the city's older areas already have plenty of poverty.
Montandon, along with other boomburb mayors, has a Rodney Dangerfield complex, say the authors, who related a story that Montandon told them about the Mayor of Salt Lake City who didn't believe Montandon's city and SLC had anything in common, "despite the fact that North Las Vegas is both bigger and more ethnically diverse than Salt Lake City."
Local political structure is one likely reason for the fast growth of these boomburbs. Although these are now big cities, boomburbs have small-town governance. Municipal government is smaller than comparable-sized old-style big cities, with mayors working part time under professional city manager-council systems. As these cities become bigger, "private solutions lessen the burden of urban management," according to LeFurgy and Lang. What fills the gap is what the authors describe as "private governments," like homeowners associations and "shadow governments" such as special improvement districts. The ward system under a full-time mayor that most eastern cities have, are plagued with corruption and the high costs associated with council members swapping pork projects.
Another reason for the growth of boomburbs is the freeways. Freeway exits create locations for jobs, retail uses and, of course, housing. The number of exits that are located in a city drives the "exit-ramp economy."
Lang and LeFurgy refer to Clark County Nevada as "perhaps the most complicated county governance structure in the United States." State law enables Clark County to form unincorporated towns like Enterprise and Paradise. Most of the Las Vegas Strip is located in Paradise and with its 200,000 residents it would qualify as a boomburb if it were incorporated. Sunrise Manor and Spring Valley are also what the authors refer to as "lost boomburbs."
Boomburb growth will likely slow as well over half expect to be completely built out by 2020. As build-out approaches, many of the boomburbs plan to grow denser, while a number support light rail measures, not necessarily for mobility purposes, but "for its economic development potential."
There are those who are betting on the demise of suburbia, but as Lang and LeFurgy point out, America's population will likely grow to 400 million by 204050. People like the smaller governments and open spaces that suburbia in the Southwest and West provide.