Population Growth Shifting to Cities

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

And the evidence just keeps pouring in… Growth and development in metropolitan regions is shifting from the periphery to the core. I’ve made that point previously by pointing out that property values tend to be rising in metro cores and falling in the periphery. Now comes Census Bureau data that population growth in “cities” (presumably meaning traditional urban jurisdictions at the core of metro areas) are growing faster than the “suburbs” (presumably referring to political jurisdictions outside the core).

Reports the Wall Street Journal (I would provide a link to the original Census data but I can’t find it):

Many U.S. cities are growing faster than their suburbs for the first time in  decades, reflecting shifting attitudes about urban living as well as the effect  of a housing bust that has put a damper on moving.

According to Census data released Thursday, in 27 of the nation’s 51 largest  metropolitan areas, city centers grew faster than suburbs between July 2010 and  July 2011. By contrast, from 2000 to 2010 only five metro areas saw their cores  grow faster than the surrounding suburbs.

Viewed as a whole, U.S. suburbs have grown faster than city centers in every  decade since the 1920s, when rising automobile ownership inspired Americans to  begin fleeing cramped city quarters for leafy suburbs, said William Frey, a  demographer at the Brookings Institution. Urban population growth accelerated  markedly at the end of the last decade, he added.

The article cites falling crime rates, the departure of loud and smelly heavy industry and growing preference for walkable communities, although it points out that the shift may be tied to temporary factors like the recession and housing bust. Regardless of whether the data represent a blip or an inflection point, major home building companies are getting the message, the WSJ reports, and they are responding to the change in demand by pursuing more projects closer to the urban core.


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  1. larryg Avatar

    I sorta miss Ed R when it comes to these issues. There was a lot I did not agree with but he had a good way of characterizing perspectives including making clear – that there are clear distinctions between “core confusing words”.

    When we say “urban area” and suburb/exurb – how do we more clearly define that boundary in urban areas with beltways?

    Two things that have transformed the country is the consolidation of farming into corporate institutions and away from family farms …thus accelerating the depopulation of rural USA.

    But the second thing is specifically what we did with urban areas when we built the Interstate highway system and now beltways have totally changed the urban city landscape…indeed the ways that cities now economically “work”.

    You won’t convince me that commuter rail in NYC/Connecticut/NJ or NOVA/Fredericksburg/Manassas/Md (and their exurban locations) are going to dry up and blow away.

    Young people flock to the urban areas to find work – yes – but in a beltway city, they may well live 30 miles away from their job on the outer fringe of the beltway.

    Do we really count that as “city”?

    I would assert that when we say MSA – we are not talking about cities per se and if we really wanted a more precise measure – we’d restrict boundaries to the core areas inside of the beltways and exclude even those areas that are in side the beltway but external to the city boundary.

  2. larryg Avatar

    by the way, an excellent example of this is the Fredericksburg Area where the MSA is Stafford, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg – all 3 that many years ago used to have populations of about 15K each.

    Here we are now with Spotsylvania and Stafford well off 100K in population and Fredericksburg bumping along at 25K.

    If you use this same template for DC/Nova/MD – what happens?

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    This needs a lot more analysis than Jim is providing. First, there are demographics. The Baby Boomer’s babies, the so-called Echo Boomers, are in their twenties and early thirties. Those are prime urban living years. In 10 years they will be in their thirties and early forties. We’ll see if the trend to the cities holds up.

    Second, LarryG is completely right about “core confusing words”. Is Arlington County a city or a suburb? The county of Arlington has a population density of 7,995 per sq mi. The city of Richmond has a density of 3,211 per sq mi. The city of Houston has a density of 3,623 per sq mi. The Census Designated Place called Reston in Fairfax County has a population density of 3,288 per sq mi – higher than the “city” of Richmond.

    Virginia Beach, an independent city, has a population density of 1,713 per sq mi. Fairfax County has a density of 2,738 per sq mi. The independent city of Roanoke has a population density of 2,261.

    As is often the case in the bizarre-o world of Virginia, there are counties with triple the population density of the state’s largest city and cities that can barely call themselves cities based on their population density.

  4. larryg Avatar

    well… Risse DID have a way to characterize what he considered “efficient” settlement patterns but my problem with his analysis was that he’d essentially say that beltways have messed things up, as if, they have to be undone … or… we’re doomed….

    Beltways change the game IMHO and we cannot go back and we’re not allowed to be “doomed”.

    we you build a beltway you have magnified by 360 degrees the places where exurbs can be and beyond the beltways the interstate spines.

    If you look at any aerial photo of an urban area this dynamic is clear.

    the beltway is the ultimate growth boundary … until of course, they build an outer beltway.

    As long as these critters exist – I don’t see how growth is “contained” unless you rule land ownership illegal.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    “As long as these critters exist – I don’t see how growth is “contained” unless you rule land ownership illegal.”.

    Ed had a plan. You heavily tax structures outside the clear edge of a community and heavily tax land inside the clear edge of a community.

    I personally think Ed’s plan would work.

    What Jim Bacon seems to forget is that there are several levels of community. Not everything is the central urban core. A densely populated community like Reston could be a beta community and would represent a legitimate place for the government to spend money on transportation infrastructure.

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