Both central cities and suburbs are located within areas designated as metropolitan by the Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. New York City’s central borough, Manhattan, is the densest and typically called “The City” Areas within metropolitan counties, but outside of Manhattan can have a suburban character. However, they retain a smaller lot size in the New York Counties than upstate counties such as Westchester in New York and counties in New Jersey and Connecticut. The other primary designation is nonmetropolitan. These areas fall outside metropolitan counties and appear rural as land use becomes more agricultural or adjacent to state and national parkland.


The various stages of family life between 1960 and 2020 are familiar but more varied over the decades. The households in a square mile are unlikely to be composed solely of nuclear families. The most glaring is the doubling percentage of one-person households and a halving of married couples with children. Those born in the 40s and 50s grew up in a classic two adult with children home. It may be atop a social preference pyramid, but it is fleeting in two ways. The obvious is that the nest empties. Less known is in 2000, only 24% of American households were married couples with children, and it was 20% in 2010.

Families are more likely to represent many sizes and combinations of social or occupational relationships that share residential accommodations but are unrelated in the doubling of Nonfamily Households. Examine the household composition structure in the table below organized by the Population Research Bureau (here). Definitions of household type will be found in the U.S. Census Glossary (here) and definitions (here).

Many differences in household composition and size also suggest a capacity to build a more tolerant society. Social diversity is a central sustaining if not drawing power of dense urban places and a weaker one in other settings.[i]  Attracting and retaining a broad range of households with varying interests is also attributable to services’ variety, size, and adaptability. Given a reasonable level of social and economic mobility, the choices in places to live encourage people to find or create what they need and want.

Note: Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.
Sources: James A. Sweet and Larry L. Bumpass, American Families and Households, Table 9.2 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1987); U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 and 2010 decennial censuses; 2017 American Community Survey.

Responsive Architecture

The design flexibility of accommodations is greater in dense urban settings and serves as a nurturer of diversity. The classic example is the row house design. It can be a one-family home converted to a two-family residence. In some cases, a four-story building can contain eight small apartments.


The Rowhouse

The initial interest in love, family, and the abstractions of the “out of city” experience was captured neatly by post-WWII policies in response to the anticipated increase in married couples and children. Targeted policies drove the location of their homes. Low interest, zero down payment loans by the G.I. Bill offered suburban lower-cost dwellings. Other federal approaches such as the National Defense Highway Act spread people out as protection from nuclear attack. The success of the New Deal policies was remembered as a successful national government initiative to assure positive economic development impacts. The automobile on smooth roads was recognized as a significant benefit for multiple generations that would remain essential to the end of the 20th century when the total cost of these policies began to reverse. The questions of sustainability have become paramount.

There are indications that demographic change is occurring, like the impact of post-WWII—however, far more subtle by 2050. The implications of rapidly changing social conditions do not happen quickly in low-density settings as it is limited by residential building type. Empty nest families are increasing as a percentage of households for many reasons led by the maturation of the baby boomers. The choice of location may shift to dense urban settings with the release of suburban equity. Large three-to-four or more-bedroom homes represent significant equity in low-density markets. A growing number of empty-nest and nonfamily households are beginning to seek a broader services base.[ii] More service options are available in dense, walkable communities. Many offer an extensive collection of health care facilities and educational institutions. 

In the last seven decades, changes in the population now exhibit a substantial, growing portion of the United States having interests other than the traditional household formation. For example, one-person households continue to increase in dense urban areas, and married couples living with others have become more prevalent in low-density communities. One other element of interest is how dense communities tend to retain a larger share of multigenerational members. These households are most commonplace among Hispanic and Asian families but less so among whites and blacks.

Goldilocks Zone

In the older cities, innovations through renovation and rehabilitation, including historic preservation, are restorative actions that generate significant economic activity vital to the resilience of urban neighborhoods. New York City’s building code recognizes the need for flexibility in building design to make them compatible with changing land uses and consumer tastes. 

City services have expanded in partnerships with private developers. Service innovations include hundreds of new greensward commons, the complete-street, and waterfront park designs. These steps also express resilience in new urbTEDanized leisure and recreation lifestyle choices.

New Zero Family Homes He also does a great critique of the challenge of a sustainable urban future (here)

The standing flexibility of existing dense centers and its tendency to offer more choices, especially for a diverse range of income households, suggest the opportunity to de-isolate society. The isolation framed as privacy in the low-density community has a competitor in building a wider variety of attractions and amenities in the dense city. The demands created by the diversity in household type and density are self-solving design problems. Therefore leadership in production can focus on the more pressing issues such as new construction or urban rehabs leading to net-zero energy conversions.

The market trends are apparent. For example, industrial land uses along waterfronts are converting to buffering parklands, industrial manufacturing innovation centers for consumption goods. The “use group” labels in zones or buildings change into various compatibility packages based on environmental performance. City street designs make room for new personalized transit vehicles. Urban highways add dedicated mass transit right-of-ways that provide high-speed center to dense center linkages.

The older city has a reputation for being unresponsive to the needs and preferences of the nuclear family. The response could be as simple as the green lawn guaranteed to be without dog poop or as complicated as race and class sensitivities. Briefly recounting some of the lessons of the last half of the 20th century are instructive for the first half of the following highly dense century.

[i] The use of the term “grid” or matrix can be problematic as it implies the idea of a module. In the dense urban environment, grids provide a measure of proportion, unlike the non-urban environment where the grid itself was modularized as a component for endless replication with minimal variation other than alterations to the grid itself.

[ii] See national to regional summaries HERE