High-density smart growth = population implosion?I recently came across this USA Today op-ed arguing for a link between Europe's secularism and its population collapse. I have an alternate hypothesis, but here's the excerpt first:
'Demographic suicide'While there might be some elements of truth in this theory, the drivers he lists - abortion, birth control, acceptance of gay marriage and casual sex - are pretty common in America too, yet we have enough children to at least maintain our population. Why?
Among the consequences of Europe's abandonment of its religious roots and the moral code that derives therefrom is a plunge in its birth rates to below the replacement level. Abortion, birth control, acceptance of gay marriage and casual sex are driving the trend. Europe is "committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself," according to Weigel.
United Nations population statistics back him up.
Not a single Western European country has a fertility rate sufficient to replace the current population, which demographers say requires 2.1 children per family. Germany, Russia, Spain, Poland and Italy all have rates of about 1.3 children, according to the U.N. The Czech Republic's is less than 1.2, and even Roman Catholic Ireland is at 1.9 children. (The U.S. rate, which has remained stable, is slightly more than 2 children per woman.)
Fifteen countries, "mostly located in Southern and Eastern Europe, have reached levels of fertility unprecedented in human history," according to the U.N.'s World Population Prospects 2004 revision.
As children grow scarce and longevity increases in Europe, the continent is becoming one vast Leisure World. By 2050, the U.N. projects, more than 40% of the people in Italy will be 60 or older. By mid-century, populations in 25 European nations will be lower than they are now; Russia will lose 31 million people, Italy 7.2 million, Poland 6.6 million and Germany 3.9 million. So Europe is abandoning religion, growing older, shrinking and slowly killing itself. These are signs of a society in eclipse — the Roman Empire writ large. Is this any model for America?
My alternate hypothesis is based on a maxim I stated twice before in this blog: rising affluence seeks more private space. It's held true through all of human history: the wealthy always sought the largest estates in the country or apartments in the city. The vast majority of Europe's cities were developed well before the car, so there was little or no room for parking or freeways when it came along - their cities stayed relatively compact, dense and focused on public transit. With the supply of private space restricted, European households did what they had to do to get more private space per person as they grew wealthier: they had smaller families. If you can't grow the house, then shrink the household.
Everybody knows the story in America, of course: we built the freeways and the suburbs, increasing private space along with our wealth and making larger families more comfortable. In cities with space limitations similar to Europe like San Francisco, New York, and Portland, there have been stories of shrinking households and fewer children. Same story in Japan - so the correlation seems to hold across cultures and continents. I would imagine we'll see the same impact on Asia over the next few decades as they urbanize and increase GDP/capita.
Forecast for Houston? Steady population growth as far as the eye can see. Affluence seeks space, and we are, after all, "Space City, USA."
Addendum/clarification: This is not an argument against density as an option in the core for those who want it (aka New Urbanism), but an argument against forced density for all.
Update 10/06: A quote from the Economist magazine:
America's wide open spaces also make child-rearing more attractive. Bringing up a large family in a tiny Japanese apartment is a struggle, even if you can fold away your bed during the day. The world's lowest fertility rates are in super-crowded Hong Kong (0.95), Macau (1.02) and Singapore (1.06). In America the average family-home has doubled in size in the past half-century, from 1,000 square feet (93 square metres) in 1950 to 2,100 square feet in 2001.