Yet an analysis by demographer Wendell Cox of the counties with populations over 100,000 that have gained the most new residents since 2010 tells us something very different: Suburbs and exurbs are making a comeback, something that even the density-obsessed New York Times has been forced to admit. Of the 10 fastest-growing large counties all but two — Orleans Parish, home to the recovering city of New Orleans, and the Texas oil town of Midland— are located in the suburban or exurban fringe of major metropolitan areas.
Fastest Growiing US Counties: 2010-2012 Counties over 100,000 Population Rank County Equivalent Jurisdiction Growth 1 Williamson, TX 7.94% 2 Loudon, VA 7.87% 3 Hays, TX 7.56% 4 Orleans, LA 7.39% 5 Fort Bend, TX 7.16% 6 Midland, TX 7.14% 7 Forsyth, GA 7.07% 8 Montgomery, TN 7.04% 9 Prince William, VA 7.04% 10 Osceola, FL 6.97%
What these findings demonstrate is that more people aren’t moving “back to the city” but further out. In the last decade in the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, inner cores, within two miles of downtown, gained some 206,000 people, while locations 20 miles out gained over 8.5 million. Although the recession slowed exurban growth, since 2011, notes Jed Kolko at Trulia, suburbs have continued to grow far faster than inner ring areas as well as downtown. Americans, he concludes, “still love their suburbs.”
Rather than an inevitable long-range shift, the post-crash slowdown of suburban growth seems to have been largely a response to economic factors. The retro-urbanist dream of eliminating, or at least undermining, suburban alternatives depends very much on maintaining recessionary conditions that discourage relocation, depress housing starts, as well as lowering marriage and birthrates.
Where incomes are growing along with rapid job growth , suburban and exurban growth tends to be strong. The metro regions that contain our fastest-growing counties — Austin, Houston, Nashville and Northern Virginia — all epitomize this phenomenon. For example, nearly 80% of all housing growth in greater Houston takes place in the areas west of Beltway 8 (the outer beltway). A similar pattern can be seen in the D.C. area, where the number of units permitted in Loudon has more than doubled since 2007. In 2012 permit issuances were the highest since 2005, and the vast majority were for either detached or attached single-family houses.
Kotkin’s conclusion is that the economic crisis slowed suburban growth for a few years, not a growing American move to cities and denser suburban areas. Some of this can’t be known until more time goes by; if Kotkin is right, recent years will be a blip and the kinds of places that were the fastest growing counties from 2010 to 2012 will continue to be fast-growing places.
There might be another approach that would allow both Kotkin and proponents of cities to both be able to claim some victory: outer suburbs might continue to grow as might attractive big cities (think Richard Florida’s creative class moving to the city) while inner suburbs who often have big-city problems, older housing stocks, and tax bases that have a hard time supporting suburban services languish.