Monday, February 7, 2011

Ann Arbor shrinking

Washtenaw County bucked the state trend and gained over 20,000 residents in the last decade. Ann Arbor, though, lost 1,500 residents.


How could the city with the lowest unemployment rate in the state lose people? David Cahill has the answer:

That's right folks: Ann Arbor is losing residents (while surrounding townships are gaining people) because we are building too many large residential developments. Quoi? Are we to believe that building more housing drives people away? Is the opposite true? If we begin demolishing houses and apartments will we draw more people into Ann Arbor?

I could see the high price of housing in Ann Arbor driving people out. And maybe building upscale residential developments precludes building more affordable housing to some degree. But seriously? It seems like we've lost population because it's easy to live just outside of the city limits and still have access to great schools, the downtown area, and live in a cookie-cutter house. More housing in Ann Arbor, provided it is somewhat affordable, seems like it would reverse this trend. It's all about incentives, folks.


  1. Think how many people could fit within city limits if Ann Arbor were just a huge field. Just picture it.

  2. Erika~
    I can just picture it! 109,901 people all in one place. :)

  3. First of all, the census data has not been released. The story on that you apparently saw was based on old estimates, not new data. It will be interesting to see how the real numbers compare to the estimates.

    I think you are making circular logic out of Cahill's comment. He is saying that if our population is shrinking, why are we considering putting big PUDs into neighborhoods? No need to clear the ghettos and put up high rises if there are less people here than before.

    Besides, would any of those people (typically families) who bought a 2000sf house in the boonies, with a yard and attached garage really want to pick up and move to an 800sf apartment with one parking space for the same money?

    Urbanism is great. I'm living it in an old house with a small lot in a diverse neighborhood close to campus and downtown, and yes, with a wife and two kids. I have several neighbors who are doing the same. It's the option we chose, but despite what urban planning textbooks may say, there's a huge American population that think anything less than an acre is hell and will never move closer to town--and what would you do with all those empty suburbs anyway?

  4. Tom, thanks for the clarification. The suburbs present a dilemma--they are unsustainable but as you point out, what would we do with them if they empty out?

  5. I appreciate that, even in Ann Arbor, sneering at education is acceptable - as long as it's an urban planning education.

    Meanwhile, as has been noted, the Census estimates are estimates, though darn good ones, as population estimates go - they're not going to be off by more than a few percent. The Census Bureau puts out annual estimates for states, counties, and "minor civil divisions" (cities and townships), usually around July. Find Michigan's last ten years worth of estimates here:

    (Remember, through the ACS, the Census is taking a rolling survey of the population, hitting something like 15-20% of the population annually, so they've got pretty solid data to work from.)

    Comparing decennial census results to each other is (will be), of course, best. Look for the usual suspects like household size - generally trending downwards, meaning more housing units are needed to house the same number of people.

    A few other thoughts, though -

    First, look for vacancy rates. I have no doubt vacancy rates in 2010 will be higher than in 2000, across pretty much all geographies. That'll include Ann Arbor. David will attempt to convince you that this is purely because of out-of-control construction, and that, without such, Ann Arbor would have been immune to the ravages of the housing crash. I'll disagree. It'd be interesting to know more about the vacant units to diagnose the real issues. Are they habitable? What's the age profile of vacant units - older or newer? Where in the city are they located? For-rent or for-sale? (Or in foreclosure?)

    Second, consider "current" vs. "desired" - as in, Washtenaw County's population is growing while Ann Arbor's is stagnant or down slightly: is this what we want, or is intervention needed? Some will insist that current development patterns are purely market driven; I give you zoning and financing regulations as counter-arguments, and suggest that regulating differently, or even less, may not be inappropriate, while still quite likely permitting more in-town / infill development. You're right, it's all about incentives. For the last 60 years, there have been a ton of them skewing the market towards low-density, single-family, owner-occupied houses. And that's great for a segment of the market, acceptable for another segment, and inappropriate for a third - but's it what we prescribe for all but an elite few.

    Of course, if you look through ArborUpdate's archives, you can find Mr. Cahill & I having this conversation approximately once for every resident in Ann Arbor, so I'll restrain myself...

  6. I can make fun of urban planning education cause I are one. Or two... But honestly, sometimes the commentary from current students or recent grads sounds like a freshman who's taking Psych 101 and proceeds to analyze his entire family over Thanksgiving.

    There are lots of wonderful theories out there, but the goddam real world keeps getting in the way. In the end, we go to war with the suburbs we've got, not the suburbs we'd like to have.

    There is policy and there is the market. I think Ann Arbor has done pretty well with reforming downtown policy. Now we wait for the market. In the meantime, let's try not to wreck every thing else.