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How America grows: A tale of two cities

Gilbert, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., have approached expansion in two very different ways.

(Page 3 of 3)



"What I worry most about for Portland is that our high rankings as a city – and we're a wonderful city; don't get me wrong – mask some serious underlying negative economic trends," says Adams, a former mayor's aide.

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How fast cities and the nation grow also has an impact on how people live. For example: One reason the US is virtually the only developed nation projected to grow rapidly during the next few decades is its high fertility rate. Indeed, the US has the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world: 22 percent of all women become mothers before age 20.

By contrast, the rate is 4 percent in Sweden, 6 percent in France, and 11 percent in Canada. At the same time, 35 percent of US births are unplanned, a figure Population Connection president John Seager finds "astonishing."

"Our fertility levels are as high as they are in part because of a significant high fraction of births out of wedlock," says University of Pennsylvania demographer Samuel Preston.

Population growth and land development will continue to affect where and how Americans live. So will things like increasing house sizes, commuting distances, automobile ownership, and other indicators of affluence.

All of these things are interconnected. Growing affluence means more people can buy a new house or an extra car for commuting purposes. Depending on your point of view, suburbs or small towns like Gilbert that have become booming satellites of a nearby big city indicate sprawl or they offer new opportunities for individuals and businesses.

Brian Brown and his family moved to Gilbert from Orange County, Calif., two years ago.

"I was living in an 800-square foot apartment paying $1,100 a month rent," he says as he keeps an eye on his year-old son playing on a jungle gym in Freestone Park. "But here, we could afford a 2,000-square-foot house for the same price."

The move did mean a 54-mile commute to his job at a Trader Joe's store in Glendale way on the other side of Phoenix. In fact, commuting in fast-growing suburbs can be a major challenge.

Although Gilbert has only one-third the population of Portland and significantly fewer people per square mile, it has longer average commute times: 28.6 minutes vs. 23.1 minutes. Recently, Mr. Brown was transferred to a closer store in Mesa.

Has the family found a sense of community here? He pauses before answering: "Not yet. If anything, that is one of the hardest things for us. In California, everything was at our fingertips – restaurants, shops, entertainment. We really miss that a lot."

That's the challenge for places like Gilbert trying to maintain community as its population soars. And over the coming decades, experts wonder whether this kind of growth, based on the automobile, is sustainable.

The key question, says Kotkin, is: "Do we manage this growth in an intelligent way and figure out how to make it environmentally benign?"

"The other way is to try and become like Europe, stop having babies and stop having immigrants, and become kind of a museum society," says Kotkin, who extols the economic and social virtues of what he calls the "new suburbanism." "That is not in the nature of Americans."

Next: What's ahead as the US grows toward 400 million people? Previous installments ran Sept. 12, 19, and 26.

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