By Phil Ehrensaft
"Exurbia" is a word that pops up more and more these days, as demographic patterns shift away from the city/suburban trends of earlier decades. But what does the word "exurbia" actually mean? Simply, it is the newest American demographic and geographic frontier. Exurbia combines two geographic zones: metropolitan areas' rural and small town fringe, located just beyond the outer suburbs; and rural and small town counties that are immediately adjacent to the metro areas' rural fringe. These two zones include 82 million Americans, 27 percent of our total population, and are growing faster than traditional suburbs or central cities.
"Metropolitan areas" are defined by large workday commuting flows between central cities, suburbs, and the rural fringe. The real New York City is not the city proper as defined by old political boundaries. It's the New York Metropolitan Area defined by commuting boundaries. Metro New York sprawls across four states, into New Jersey, Connecticut, and even eastern Pennsylvania. It includes 19 million people.
But the story doesn't end there. Five smaller metro areas on the outskirts of metro New York have been effectively annexed to metro New York to form one economic super-region. The national Office of Management and Budget's official term for our super-region, one that is impressively clumsy even for a bureaucracy, is the New York-Newark-Bridgeport, New York-New Jersey-Connecticut-Pennsylvania Combined Statistical Area (CSA).
What I'll call the New York Super-City includes 22 million people over an area totaling 11,842 square miles. That's equivalent to a square measuring 109 miles on each side. If you drove around the square at the un-American speed of 55 mph, it would take 8 hours non-stop. Yet another part of the story: some of the prettiest countryside on the continent is included in the exurban fringe of the New York Super-City.
That countryside includes the ten exurban towns hugging both sides of the choice northeastern stretch of the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge. The Town of Warwarsing and the Village of Ellenville, along with the towns of Shawangunk, Gardiner, Rosendale, Marbletown, Rochester, and New Paltz in Ulster County; the Town of Crawford in Orange Country; and, lastly, the Town of Mamakating and the Village of Wurtsboro in Sullivan County had, according to the latest available Census Bureau estimates, a combined population of 86,295 as of 2008.
Those 86,295 people are equivalent to the numbers found in many small cities, but spread across one of America's great landscapes of mountains, forests, waterways, farm fields, and picturesque small towns.
The northeastern Ridge's population growth has considerably outpaced that of New York State as a whole. Between the July 2000 and July 2008 population estimates, the number of people in New York State grew by 2.7 percent. For the northeastern Ridge, that rate was 4.8 percent: 78 percent greater than the state average.
The northeastern Ridge is one of New York State's only two demographic boom zones: the Hudson Valley, and the Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx outer boroughs of New York City. Other regions of the state are barely holding steady, or face outright population drains.
The backbone of the Ridge's robust demography, apart from its knock-down gorgeous landscape, is being part of, or adjacent to, three metropolitan areas: 1) Metro New York proper, which spread its reach to northern New Jersey, Rockland County, and Orange County; 2) a cigar-shaped metro area starting in Poughkeepsie to the east; crossing the Hudson River to Newburgh, and onwards to Middletown; 3) Ulster County, which now constitutes its own metro area.
What this means is that, within an hour's drive or less, northeastern Ridge residents have opportunities in three different labor markets. Many new economy activities have shifted from the central city to the northern New Jersey/Rockland and Orange Counties zone on this side of the river, to northern Westchester County on the east side — or into the Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown and Ulster County metro areas.
It also means that, although New York financiers' excesses sparked the worst crisis since the 1930s, the super-city will likely increase its national clout once the economy recovers. Our understanding of whether or not different city-regions thrive has been reshaped by the work of Richard Florida, an urban economist at the University of Toronto, on what he calls the "creative economy." The "creative class," he argues, drives the new economy: scientists and engineers generating innovations; entrepreneurs applying the innovations; venture financiers backing innovative entrepreneurs; and, surprisingly, people in the arts. The creative class is increasingly clustered in a small number of major metro areas.
Metro New York is not only number one in terms of America's creative class, but will likely move even further ahead once the current crisis resolves itself.
Exurban New York, and especially towns along the northeastern Ridge, are exceptionally well-poised to benefit from our super-city being king of the hill. Even more high-end activities will relocate in the outer suburbs. A good example is Sharp Corporation's striking headquarters in the northern New Jersey town of Mahwah.
More good jobs within a reasonable commuting distance will be available for exurban residents. We'll get to have our cake and eat it too: living within an exceptional landscape while having access to leading-edge jobs.
Another welcome development is the number of innovating enterprises moving into exurbia itself. This parallels the exodus of a good fraction of New York City's musical talent out to the Mid-Hudson Valley and Eastern Catskills. Musicians can get into the Big Apple and back within a day in order to negotiate contracts and perform. House prices in our quadrant of exurban New York have therefore risen considerably; but, it still costs less to live here, commuting costs included, than in one of the city outer boroughs or inner suburbs.
Exurban innovators in sectors like green energy also have the advantage of a rapidly growing local population that is quite favorably inclined to buy their new products.
The most important point in all of this is that, if you've been thinking of trying out exurbia, now is the time to do so. The severe recession has clobbered house prices and new construction as it has elsewhere. As such, there's a narrow window of opportunity to relocate in a choice slice of America's exurban frontier: the ten towns flanking the northeastern Shawangunk Mountains.
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