How to Kill a Country

Much of Seoul is a sea of high-rises. And not just Seoul: Busan and other cities in South Korea have lots of high rises. More than half of all South […]

Much of Seoul is a sea of high-rises. And not just Seoul: Busan and other cities in South Korea have lots of high rises. More than half of all South Korean households live in high rises, and well over 60 percent live in some kind of multifamily housing.

South Korea also has the lowest birthrate of any country in the world. The latest numbers say the average woman has just 0.70 children in her lifetime. Birthrates need to be 2.1 per woman for a population to remain constant; at 0.70, South Korea will be almost totally depopulated in just three generations. Seoul’s birthrate is 0.64 and, due to an aging population, it will likely fall to 0.30 in the next ten years.

It is strange that a few decades ago we were worried about overpopulation and now we need to worry about population decline, at least in the developed world. A birthrate of 0.70 heralds an existential collapse for any country that doesn’t welcome immigrants — and I know of only two countries that welcome and assimilate immigrants, as opposed to isolating them as most European countries do.

South Korea’s high-rise housing and low birthrates are closely related. People don’t have children if they don’t have room for them. High rises are expensive to build so living space is at a premium. Birth rates are declining throughout the developed world, but they have declined the most in countries like South Korea, Russia, and China that have tried to house most of their people in high rises.

South Korea became a high rise country when it rapidly industrialized after the end of the Korean War. People moving from rural areas to the cities to get jobs created a housing crisis, and then-current urban planning theories held that high-rise housing was the best way to house people. Remember that, even though South Korea was the “good guys” in the Korean war, the country was still a dictatorship until about 1990, which meant the leadership could direct the country into one style of housing even if residents might have preferred otherwise.

Admittedly, South Korea has one of the highest population densities in the world with 1,340 people per square mile. But the country could have housed most of its population in low-rise apartments and single-family homes and still left well over 80 percent of its land for farming and other rural purposes. South Korea’s urban areas make up 17 percent of its land but, even with all of its high rises, have an average of less than 7,000 people per square mile. For comparison, 73 percent of the residents of Philadelphia live in single-family homes (mostly townhouses) yet the city’s population density is nearly 12,000 people per square mile.

The current urban planning fad is for mid-rise housing instead of high rises, but the result is the same: cramped quarters unsuited for raising children. In 1996, Portland planners set a target of reducing the share of the region’s households living in single-family homes from 65 percent (which is what it was in 1990) to 41 percent by 2040. Planners have had enough of an impact to date that Portland has a pretty low birthrate, though its suburbs are higher.

Because census data aren’t detailed enough to accurately calculate birthrates, I’m using a slightly simplified number: the ratio of children (0-17) to adults of child-bearing age (18-40). A ratio of at least 1.50 is needed to maintain a population; the ratio is currently 1.49 for the United States as a whole. However, in the city of Portland it is just 0.92 while the Portland urban area it is 1.26. The city of San Francisco’s is 0.79 (1.17 for the urban area) and Seattle’s is 0.62 (1.24 for the urban area). Meanwhile, Houston’s is 1.30 and the Houston urban area is 1.66, well above the national average.

Using 2010 population densities because 2020 numbers aren’t yet available, the correlation between density and this measure of fertility is about 0.4 for both the 50 largest cities and the 50 largest urban areas. That is pretty high considering that a lot of things influence birthrates. For example, Pittsburgh and other rust-belt cities bring the correlations down because they have moderate densities but low birthrates. The city of Boston, whose density is well over 12,000 people per square mile, improves the correlation for cities but the Census Bureau’s definition of the Boston urban area is so broad that its density is only about 2,200 per square mile, which brings down the correlation for urban areas.

There is some self-selection involved in the city correlations, as people who might want children but have jobs in really dense cities are more likely to live in the suburbs while those who would be happy not to have children anyway will live in the cities. However, self-selection doesn’t explain away the large variations among urban areas, as I doubt many people say, “We want to have children so we moved to Houston instead of San Francisco.”

The real problem here is that urban planners don’t understand how cities work, much less how the world works, so they focus on one or two things, such as getting people out of their cars or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This makes them miss important things like the impact of their policies on demographics. If the impact of urban planners on birthrates is combined with the impact of the growing populist movement on immigration, the United States could end up with the same sort of disaster that is facing South Korea.


Randal O’Toole, the Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land-use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Watch Randal O’Toole on Leaders on the Frontier here.

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