Urbanist Goals Will Mean Fewer Children, more Seniors Needing Government Help

Appearing in:

Washington Examiner

America’s cognitive elites and many media pundits believe high-density development will dominate the country’s future.

That could be so, but, if it is the case, also expect far fewer Americans — and far more rapid aging of the population.

This is a pattern seen throughout the world. In every major metropolitan area in the high-income world for which we found data — Tokyo, Seoul, London, Paris, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay area — inner-core total fertility rates are much lower than those in outer areas.

For example, inner London, notes demographer Wendell Cox, has a fertility rate of 1.6 children per female, which is well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

The total fertility rate is the average number of children born to women between 15 and 44 years old. In the outer reaches of London, this rate hits 2.0, one-fourth higher.

In Sydney, Australia, where increasing population density is a sworn goal of planners, the inner city now has a fertility rate of 0.76, compared to 2.0 or more in the outer suburbs.

Nowhere is the confluence of high density and high prices more evident than East Asia. This region is now home to some of the lowest fertility rates on Earth.

Take Seoul, South Korea, a paragon of high-density development where high-rise buildings dominate even on the periphery.

Seoul’s fertility rate is about 1.2, similar to rates found in Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong. This is the kind of place urban planners often cite as a role model.

A recent glowing report in Smithsonian Magazine heralded Seoul as “the city of the future.” Architects, naturally, join the chorus. In 2010, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design named Seoul the “world design capital.”

Yet the real frontier of ultra-low fertility may now be coastal China. Both Shanghai and Beijing have fertility rates of roughly 0.7, almost one-third of the replacement rate. Overall, China’s cities have a fertility rate under 0.9.

Gavin Jones, a leading demographer of Asia, suggests that despite recent easing of China’s one-child policy, the world’s second leading economic power is experiencing a dramatic slowdown in its birthrate.

In places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore, more than one-quarter of women will never marry and even more will never have children.

The result, Jones suggests, will be a society made up increasingly of single people, one-child families and very old people.

In less than four decades, according to United Nations projections, Japan will have more people over 80 than under 15.

This may present more of a challenge to Japan in the future, one professor suggests, than the rise of China. Indeed, over time, notes Jones, the same process will be seen across East Asia, as well as parts of Europe, as the anti-marriage and post-familial trends accelerate.

“This won’t get better in the future,” he suggests. “The decline is just starting and it’s expanding to other areas, and the process seems inexorable.”

For now, America, with a fertility rate of 1.89, stands in somewhat less distress, but that could be changed by increasing urban density — the very policy widely adopted by pundits and planners and broadly endorsed by urban developers.

As Cox has shown, localities with higher densities and higher prices — the two are often coincident — have considerably lower birth rates than areas with lower prices.

This becomes even more evident when one considers the segment of the population between 5 and 14 years old, when children enter school.

In 2012, urban areas with the highest percentage of children are predominately lower density and lower cost, including Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Riverside-San Bernardino, Atlanta, and Phoenix.

Urban areas with the lowest percentage of people in these age groups were also the New Urbanist exemplars, such as Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle.

The geographical nature of low fertility becomes even more clear in maps developed by demographer Ali Modarres.

These maps show the percentage of households without children present. In regions such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, D.C. and Chicago, the message is clear: much lower fertility rates in the denser urban cores.

Maps Source: Demographer Ali Modarres, chair of urban studies at the University of Washington at Tacoma, using data from U.S. Census American Community Survey 2010

In virtually every case, family size expands the closer one gets to the periphery; in contrast, some of the inner rings show fertility rates that approximate those seen in the hyper-dense Asian regions.

What this suggests is that a continued focus on forcing Americans to abandon their suburban lifestyles will have a profound impact on the nation’s future competitiveness.

An aging America will lose much of its current advantage in terms of vitality of our markets and labor force, and will be forced, like many East Asian and European countries, to invest ever more resources to take care of an aging population.

Yet don’t expect this to affect the planners, environmentalists and their allies in real estate development, who hope to harvest windfall profits by urging and even forcing people to embrace high-density living.

Their gain will not be to America’s advantage and will consign future generations to persistent slow growth, greater debt and a kind of societal malaise as the family fades in the face of ever greater emphasis on individualism.

At the same time, an expanded state will be needed to keep the old folks alive in the absence of traditional networks of children and relatives.