By 2030, half of America's buildings will have been built after 2000 (Computer generated image by Las Vegas Real Estate)

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By 2030 the US will have re-built
almost half its built environment

A research paper by Prof Arthur C Nelson

19 December 2004: In 2030, about half of the buildings in which Americans live, work, and shop will have been built after 2000. Most US states and metropolitan areas have some idea as to the amount of growth they expect over the next several decades, based on estimates of projected demographic, household, market and industry trends. These estimates form the foundation of public policies and are vital for use in goal setting, planning, and implementation of a variety of growth and development strategies.

However, there is not a general sense of how the projected changes in demographic, household, and market trends will impact our nation's built environment—that is, how many new homes, office buildings, and other physical structures will need to be built to accommodate future growth. To that end, a paper by Arthur C Nelson, Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech University, examined a series of projected trends at the national, state, and metropolitan level to determine the estimated demand for new housing, commercial, and industrial space over the next quarter century.

Professor Nelson’s report, which was published by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, comes up with the following projections:

• In 2030, about half of the buildings in which Americans live, work, and shop will have been built after 2000. The nation had about 300 billion square feet of built space in 2000. By 2030, the nation will need about 427 billion square feet of built space to accommodate growth projections. About 82 billion of that will be from replacement of existing space and 131 will be new space. Thus, 50 percent of that 427 billion will have to be constructed between now and then.

• Most of the space built between 2000 and 2030 will be residential space. The largest component of this space will be homes. Over 100 billion square feet of new residential space will be needed by 2030. However, percentage-wise, the commercial and industrial sectors will have the most new space with over 60 percent of the space in 2030 less than 30 years old.

• Overall, most new growth will occur in the South and the West. There is tremendous variation in the total amount of buildings to be built between regions. In the Northeast, for example, less than 50 percent of the space in 2030 will have been built since 2000, while in the West that figure is about 87 percent, a near doubling of built space. Fast growing southern and western places—states like Nevada and Florida and metropolitan areas like Austin and Raleigh—will see the most dramatic growth.

Though a small component of overall growth, the projected demand for industrial space in the Midwest outpaces that of the other regions, unlike the other major land uses. States with a strong industrial presence will see the largest amount of growth in industrial space even though other areas may witness faster growth. After California, which far outpaces the nation in terms of absolute square feet of new industrial construction, the next four largest producers of industrial space are all Rust Belt states in the Midwest: Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. By 2030, 70 per cent of the Midwest's industrial space will be less than 30 years old.

While these projections may seem overwhelming, they also demonstrate that nearly half of what will be the built environment in 2030 doesn't even exist yet, giving the current generation a vital opportunity to reshape future development. Recent trends indicate that demand is increasing for more compact, walkable, and high quality living, entertainment, and work environments. The challenge for leaders is to create the right market, land use, and other regulatory climates to accommodate new growth in more sustainable ways.

The challenges to accommodate future development vary by region of the country. In general, Western states—like California, Washington, and Oregon—have a strong history of growth management and will need to continue to find ways to improve upon and implement existing laws and approaches. However, neighboring states like Nevada and Arizona, where explosive growth is expected to occur, will need to find their own comprehensive solutions to manage the development boom, while facing limitations on land and water. Overall, the West will not see reduced growth pressures, and will need to find innovative ways to accommodate growth on existing land, in cities and suburban areas. By contrast, the rapidly-growing South is more resistant to regulating growth and must make some important choices about the kind of economic and overall quality of life it hopes to achieve.

Although growth will not be as dramatic in the Northeast and Midwest, these places are not off the hook in needing to rethink its development future. The modest growth in the Northeast, if left unchecked, will likely disrupt the small town tranquility and abundant outdoors that define much of the quality of life, tourism, and natural resource industries of that region. For the Midwest, where state and local strategies to address patterns of sprawl and disinvestment have been uneven, the continued stagnation of cities with rapid land consumption in outlying areas will further erode the overall economic competitiveness of whole metropolitan areas.

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