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Counter-Urbanization in North America




North American cities have long been in a period known as counter-urbanization, which includes very slow growth, or even a decline, in the core city's population, as well as its business and commerce, as they move out to the suburbs, to smaller towns other parts of the region, or to the countryside. What has caused this trend to take place, and can we expect this trend to change?

What is Counter-Urbanization?

Counter-urbanization is the phenomenon in which people are leaving the cities, and moving elsewhere, which causes those cities to have shrinking populations, or populations that grow very slowly, rather than a quickly growing population, like you might find in most other large cities around the world. This trend of counter-urbanization has been a mainstay in the United States for years, primarily from the 1940's, that is, from right after World War II, and slowly starting to reverse itself starting in the 1990's. This counter-urbanization movement that we find here in the United States is quite opposite to the urbanization trends that are found almost everywhere else in the world.

So, why does this trend take place? There are several reasons why this phenomenon of counter-urbanization has taken place, and they will be listed. We will also give some more possible reasons for this occurrence.

Main Reasons for Counter-Urbanization

The main reasons for counter-urbanization are:

  • More jobs in mining, forestry, and other rural-related jobs
  • More service and manufacturing jobs moving to nonmetropolitan areas since they don’t need to be in a central location
  • People leaving the agricultural sector of the economy less, or being drawn to it as a way to reconnect with nature or to leave the city
  • More people leaving the city for rural areas and small towns when they retire, or for recreational purposes, such as the beautiful Appalachian and Ozark regions of the country.
  • People are attracted to the services that they can get from those non-metro areas, and in many cases the amenities can be the same as a metropolitan area.
  • People are attracted to the lure of the more simple life, free from business, hectic days, traffic congestion, pollution, and so forth.
  • Spillover from residential urban sprawl from nearby metro areas – in other words, you don’t mind your long commute into the city or metro area from the small town or countryside where you decided to live.

Some Other Possible Reasons

Here are some more possible reasons that could be suggested that also helped to create counter-urbanization:

  • During the Great Migration, that is, the migration over a few decades of time, of African-Americans to the northern industrial cities, as well as the migration of other ethnic groups, such as the Latinos, to the central city caused the primarily white, European-based, people to flee to the suburbs, what was known as “white flight.” This “white flight” to the suburbs also spilled out into the surrounding rural areas. Indianapolis, Indiana is one case-in-point.
  • During this period of the 1970’s, crime became more rampant in the city, which also spilled out into the suburbs. This motivated people to want to get away from their metropolitan areas wholly and completely. To find out more about the causes of crime in urban areas read this article.
  • This was about the time that the pollution, including air pollution, in the metro areas, especially the central city, was about the worst it could be. Remember that the supposed start of the modern environmental movement happened in 1969 when the pollution in the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland, Ohio caught fire – a rather ironic scene.
  • This was before the period of regentrification, where many older parts of town were in decrepit shape and somewhat boarded up, and as people left for the suburbs, there was a chain reaction leading some of the suburbanites to leave for the country.
  • The traffic system, although the interstate highway system was in the process of being developed, was not up to the level it is now, causing congestion to be quite bad. In the meantime, there was, at this time, a drought of public transportation systems, and the ones that were active were not in good shape. As a result of this, some people eventually became so frustrated and stressed out that they eventually made a run for it, in order to get back that peace and quiet, and peace of mind, and peace from high blood pressure.
  • Businesses in the service and manufacturing sectors left the big city for the small town, due to the fact that the owners wanted to get away from all the pollution, traffic congestion, and crime, and the fact that people in smaller towns or the countryside usually have a lower cost of living, and so will take wages that are less than they would take in the city. In other words – it was cost-effective for them to move. To find out some things that have been done by some metro areas, or could be done by other metro areas, to reverse this trend, read this article.
  • As some businesses moved out to the country, it motivated others to leave the city because they could find work in a better, more peaceful place, and have a better life, with a somewhat lower cost of living.
  • Later, as people became more likely to be environmentally conscious, as well as developing a desire to reconnect with their environmental surroundings, some decided to move to the country to be more "one" with nature.

Why is This Trend Reversing?

We find that this trend of counter-urbanization has been reversing itself, starting in the 1990’s, and people are starting to go back to the cities. Actually, it seems like a dual trend has been taking place - there are still many people moving out of the city to the countryside, but there are also people moving back into the central city, which is helping to reverse the trend. So, what are some of the reasons why this trend has changed and people are moving back into the city?

Here are some answers:

  • Cities have done a lot to help ease traffic congestion coming into the central cities, and the central business district, including improving the freeway systems, improving the movement on city streets, and improving public transportation systems, such as rail, subway, and bus lines, allowing people to move around in the city better. In fact, much has been done to improve our urban centers, as well as improving the quality and efficiency of city governments, making those central core cities seem more attractive from that standpoint as well.
  • City law enforcement, with the help of state and federal law enforcement, has done a lot to help alleviate some of the major areas of criminal activity within close proximity to the residential and commercial areas in the central city, allowing for people to feel more safe, and not worry about crime so much.
  • Since the early days of the modern environmental movement, cities, with the help of municipal laws, state laws, federal laws, federal environmental agencies, as well as new technologies, have become so much more environmentally sound than they used to be, with less pollution, less smog, less harmful substances being piped into public waterways such as lakes and rivers, and so forth, allowing for people to enjoy nature and breath easier than they did before. This includes legislation such as the Clean Air Act.
  • Cities have done a lot to improve and/or create green spaces, and other open spaces, so people have places, such as parks, to go to in order to relax and enjoy nature without having to leave town. Included in this are such projects as the “Big Dig,” in Boston, where they put their main downtown freeway underground, replacing the former space used by the freeways with parks, allowing for there to be more green space, as well as getting rid of the elevated roadway, which was a blight to the eye.
  • Cities have become more pedestrian-friendly, where people don’t even have to use an automobile anymore, if they don’t want to – where people can walk to their work, to recreational green spaces and parks, to stores and restaurants, and the like, which is attractive to some people.
  • Central Cities have developed tax shelters to lure businesses back into the central city, so we are starting to see a revival of the older central city, in terms of a manufacturing base and service economy base, which, decades before, people were seeing flee into the suburbs, or into nonmetropolitan areas altogether. This has allowed for motivation for people who are thinking of moving back into the city.
  • Regentrification has taken place, where groups of people purchase properties within a section of the old city, and remodel those building, such as residences and storefronts and apartment buildings, putting them back into pristine condition. This causes a drastic improvement in a previously blighted neighborhood, or section of town, and attracts others into town who want to do the same thing.
  • Sometimes municipal governments cause regentrification of old neighborhoods to take place by creating homesteading and shopsteading laws, motivating people to move into old homes and storefronts, and remodeling them while living there.
  • The environmental movement that previously motivated people to go to the country to be “one” with nature, is now, in later years, motivating people to move back to the central city, where walking everywhere, driving less, and sharing green spaces and other social commodities allows for them to ease their consciences by reducing the amount of energy they consume in daily living, as well as reducing their supposed carbon footprint and urban footprint. Many people who have a desire to reduce their environmental footprint realize now that a group of people living together in a city have less of an environmental impact than the same number of people living in the suburbs or in the countryside.

All of these things add up to create a much improved city atmosphere over the blighted and ugly nature it was before. Only time will tell if this trend completely reverses itself, or whether this back-to-the-city movement is just a fad.

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