Something dramatic has to happen to fundamentally change how and where Americans live. But what if the recession wasn't it?

For optimists, the housing bust of the last five years has come with a silver lining. We got burned, we learned our lesson, and we won’t go back to the old ways of planning and building communities that sap municipal budgets, that tax the environment and that keep us locked into our cars. According to this thinking, maybe the housing collapse was the cataclysm we needed to finally pivot away from 50 years of unsustainable sprawl.

A lot of data has reinforced this narrative. More people now say they want to live in walkable neighborhoods. Demand for housing around public transportation today outstrips supply. Downsizing baby boomers, in particular, have declared they’re ready to trade their single-family homes for smaller, more convenient condos in the city.

Now here comes another set of data, this time in the annual State of the Nation’s Housing report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. The 40-page paper covers a lot of ground, from trends in homeownership preference to affordability to housing policy. But one finding in particular sticks out amid all this optimism, captured in a Wall Street Journal headline that has been alarming urbanists on Twitter: "What’s Next For Housing? More Sprawl"

The Harvard report predicts that when we finally get back to building again, the new normal will be the same as the old one. Americans liked to live in the exurbs before the recession. And they’ll want to live there afterward, too.

"There are a lot of unknowns, probably more so now than there have been in the past," Chris Herbert, the center’s research director, says of this thorny exercise of predicting our housing future. We still don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy, for example, or with federal mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "There are a lot of ways in which this time could be different. But I look to whether or not it seems like there’s strong support to say there’s been a really fundamental, revolutionary shift in peoples’ preference. And I don’t see that."

Herbert points to a couple of trends from the last decade, alongside the obvious reality that America has the most room to grow where it was already growing: outside of cities. Between 2000 and 2010, only 21 percent of household growth in the U.S. took place in the urban cores of the 100 largest metros. In comparison, 38 percent of growth during that time was in the suburbs, and 41 percent in the exurbs. Only five metros during that time saw relative increases in the urban core compared to their suburbs and exurbs: Boston, San Diego, San Jose, and Cape Coral and Palm Bay, Florida.

This map from the report depicts those trends in the 100 largest metros:

Granted, this captures the entire decade of the 2000s in one snapshot, and what was taking place in America in 2008 was quite different from what was taking place in 2002. We weren’t really building anywhere toward the end of the decade, Herbert argues. If this were a game of musical chairs, he says, the music stopped playing when the housing market collapsed, and everyone has been stuck in place since then. When the music starts back up, he figures there’s little reason to think this picture will look different.

"People have multifaceted preferences, and so people do like walkability and more community-centered living arrangements, if you asked them in the abstract," he says. "But if you then say, ‘OK, you’re going to have to give up on having a single-family house’ – well, people like their cars, they like the convenience, and price is a big factor. Walkability often comes at a high cost."

This assessment challenges the very premise that the recession will prove in the long run to be some kind of fundamental game-changer for how and where Americans live. What if it was nothing of the kind?

"We’re not saying that this is the desirable outcome," Herbert says. "In order to see a change you really need to change land-use regulations, you have to change the pricing structure."

What if, in order to see change, we have to experience something even more dramatic than a deep housing-inspired recession? Like $15 a gallon gas.

It's entirely possible that more people now do want to live in cities and near transit and in walkable neighborhoods, but that demand still for such places won’t be enough to fundamentally shift American living patterns. It's also possible those patterns will evolve over time for other reasons: because young people don’t like to drive as much as their parents, because the finances of 30-somethings are increasingly dictated by student-loan debt, because younger generations worry more about the environment than their parents do. But when we look back on it, how much will these last five years – and the lessons we'd like to think we learned from them – have had anything to do with it?

Top image: Tim Roberts Photography /

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