Growing Midsize Cities Like Boise Could Replace Urban Future

(Bloomberg View) -- Urbanists thought their moment had finally arrived. Those who favor increased urban density and transit options believed the housing bust and the great recession could end decades of development centered on automobiles and suburban sprawl, shifting planners' focus more to cities, density and transit.

The advocates for this model point to California as the inevitable result of inaction. If you try to grow without increased density and transit you'll end up with the traffic of Los Angeles and the home prices of San Francisco. Yet the negative effects of political inaction do not make political action inevitable. Another possibility is … Boise.

Even if politics were responsive, policy changes take years or decades to achieve results -- and individuals and families planning their lives don't have that kind of time. "California needs to change its housing policies" might well be true, but that won't make a home in the Bay Area any cheaper tomorrow.

That's where Boise comes in. It doesn't have California's climate or amenities, but it's affordable. And now, in large part thanks to California migration, Idaho is the fastest-growing state in the country, with Boise absorbing the bulk of that growth. A Wall Street Journal story notes that 85 percent of Idaho's net new arrivals from other states came from California in 2016.

While Idaho has been one of the faster-growing states over the past couple decades, this was not always the case. In the 1980s Idaho was middle of the pack, the 23rd-fastest-growing state in the country. Back then, California was fifth. Whereas California's impact on the country in the second half of the 20th century might have been a result of its own growth, its greatest impact in the first half of the 21st century might be how its expatriates impact the growth of other states.

A look at the fastest-growing states in 2017 shows that some of the larger Southern states that powered population growth in the late 20th century are starting to fade. Georgia and North Carolina, both among the top 10 fastest in the 1990s and 2000s, are no longer in the Top 10. Colorado and Oregon are gaining on Texas.

When people think of the pitfalls of development models overly focused on automobiles and sprawl, they may think primarily of the larger metros characterized as the Sun Belt -- Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta. Yet their growth is slowing as they grapple with affordability and congestion problems brought about by decades of unbridled growth.

This doesn't mean that they, or the even higher-cost, more congested coastal metros, will adopt Manhattan or Tokyo-style density and transit patterns. Instead, Austin and San Antonio might be the new Houston and Dallas. Nashville and Raleigh might be the new Atlanta. And then a whole new class of midsize metros like Boise, Spokane, Provo and Reno become what Austin and Raleigh used to be.

There may just be too much land in America and entrenched local control over land use to turn urbanist dreams into reality, at least anytime soon. As the country continues to grow, more and more metro areas will "fill up" and become congested and unaffordable. Urbanists and planners wishing for a different model will speak up advocating for change, but for those for whom one city becomes unworkable, well, there's always another Boise.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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