Communications Technology and Settlement Patterns

Benjamin Chinitz and Thomas Horan, September 1, 1996

In four years, there will be a fresh count of Americans. The 2000 Census will reveal how many of us there are, who we are in terms of race, nativity, income, family size and occupation, what kind of housing we occupy, where we live and where we work.

All these numbers, but especially the latter two, will reflect what is happening to what planners and social scientists call settlement patterns. The Census will show how people and jobs are distributed regionally between North and South and East and West; within regions between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas; and within metropolitan areas between cities and suburbs.

Settlement patterns have been transformed radically in the twentieth century (see graph 1). On a regional basis, the trend has been from East to West and North to South. In the decade between 1980 and 1990, for example, three states in the West and South accounted for 50 percent of the nation’s population growth: California, Florida and Texas.

Within all regions, the trend has been toward ever larger metropolitan agglomerations. By 1990, metropolitan areas of 1,000,000 or more accounted for 50 percent of the nation’s population. Within metropolitan areas, cities grew faster than suburbs at the beginning of the century, but by the 1950s the trend was sharply in favor of the suburbs, which now account for more than half of the nation’s population.

Will the 2000 Census confirm the continuation of these trends? What stakes do we have in the outcome? Quite a few. We worry about trends that erode the economic base of cities because we are concerned about job opportunities for the poor who are committed, by choice or circumstance, to live in the city. We are also concerned about the health of the tax base, which affects the capacity of the local government to deal with the needs of all its residents.

We also worry about land use patterns in the suburbs which both require and increase auto-dependency. This trend in turn leads to more auto travel, aggravates congestion, pollutes the air, and complicates our international relations because of our heavy dependence on imported oil.

We are in the throes of a revolution comparable in scope to the revolution in transportation technology that heavily influenced settlement patterns in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The transportation revolution, from ships and trains to cars and planes, made it possible for both workers and their employers to have a wider choice of locations.

The pace of the revolution in data processing and communications, which began slowly in the middle of the twentieth century, has quickened rapidly in recent years. We speak of a post-industrial information economy. By that we mean that information constitutes an ever-increasing share of the Gross National Product, both as “input” to the production of other goods and services and as “output” in the form of entertainment and related activities.

Household Location Decisions

How will settlement patterns be affected by the transition to an information economy? Let us first consider the worker’s choice of a residential location. In classical urban economics, this choice is seen as a “trade-off” between the merits of a particular place in terms of quality of life and the cost of commuting to work. As the transportation revolution reduced the time and money costs of commuting, more and more workers were able to afford to locate in what they considered an attractive suburb that offered the lifestyle they preferred: a private home with a lawn, good schools, parks and open space, shopping facilities, and friendly neighbors.

The New York Times of July 14, 1996, reports that because of the revolution in communications and data processing, accompanied by company downsizing, as many as 40 million people work at least part time at home, with about 8,000 home-based businesses starting daily.

Logic suggests that some of this new-found workplace freedom will manifest itself in location choices that favor places considered desirable, be they in the farther reaches of suburbia, exurbia, or rural America. On the other hand, if these dispersed self-employed workers end up commuting less, their freedom may not “cost” the society more in terms of congestion and pollution.

Business Location Decisions

What about the conventional company and its location decisions? Like the household, the company does a “balancing” act when it chooses a location. From the perspective of product distribution, Place A might be preferred. From the perspective of the inputs of materials, Place B might be ideal. From the point of view of labor costs, Place C might be best. For tax purposes and related “public” issues, Place D might be most beneficial.

If the entire company has to be in one place, then compromise is inevitable. But if the communications revolution permits the “dis-integration” of the company via the physical separation of functions or the “outsourcing” of particular functions, then what used to be one location decision becomes a multiplicity of decisions, each component responding to a compelling argument for a particular place.

The classic example is the “front” office of a bank or insurance company in the midst of a congested city center with the “back” office in a rural area in another region or even in another country.

Settlement Trends

How these changes in household and business location choices will ultimately affect settlement patterns in metropolitan America was the subject of a major study by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an agency that served the U.S. Congress for many decades but was abolished by the Congress in 1995. The summary chapter in The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America states that “technology is connecting economic activities, enabling them to be physically farther apart, reducing the competitive advantage of high-cost, congested urban locations, and allowing people and businesses more (but not total) freedom to choose where they will live and work.”

But OTA concludes that “the new wave of information technologies will not prove to be the salvation of a rural U.S. economy that has undergone decades of population and job loss as its natural resource-based economy has shrunk.” Rather, most economic activity will locate in large and medium-sized metropolitan areas (see graph 2).

“Technological change. . .threatens the economic well being of many central and inner cities, and older suburbs of metropolitan areas,” the report continues. Overall, the trends suggest that these places will find it hard to compete without economic development policies designed to offset their competitive disadvantages.

In short, the OTA expects that, the communications revolution notwithstanding, the 2000 Census will report a continuation of the trends manifested throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. The favored locus of activity in both residential and business terms will be the outer suburbs of metropolitan areas. Given our concerns with the adverse effects of prevailing settlement patterns, the challenge to land policy is greater than ever.


Benjamin Chinitz is an urban economist who served as director of research at the Lincoln Institute from 1987 to 1990. He continues to serve as a faculty associate at the Institute and as visiting professor in urban and regional planning at Florida Atlantic University.

Thomas Horan is director of Applied Social and Policy Research at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, CA.