Consequences of suburbs growing, back to city movement declining

Willing Frey at The Brookings Institution sums up recent trends in growth rates among cities and suburbs:

As we approach the end of the 2010s, the biggest cities in the United States are experiencing slower growth or population losses, according to new census estimates. The combination of city growth declines and higher suburban growth suggests that the “back to the city” trend seen at the beginning of the decade has reversed.

These trends are consistent with previous census releases for counties and metropolitan areas that point to a greater dispersion of the U.S. population as the economy and housing market pick back up, perhaps propelled by young adult millennials who may be finally departing dense urban cores as they make a delayed entrance into marriage and the housing market…

Primary cities vs. suburbs growth rates

In both regions, city growth exceeded suburban growth in the early years of this decade, where Sun Belt growth in both cities and suburbs exceeded Snow Belt growth. As the decade wore on, city growth declined in both mega-regions while suburban growth remained higher. This is evident when looking at the individual metro areas in each region (download Table C). In 2011-2012, city growth exceeded suburb growth in 19 of the 34 Sun Belt metros, and in eight of the 19 Snow Belt metros. However, in 2017-18 the city growth advantage appeared in just nine Sun Belt metros and two Snow Belt metros. Among these 11 areas that still registered city growth advantages are: Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Denver, and Boston.

It is helpful to see the longer trends in the data, particularly when lots of media outlets want to jump on one-year estimates (such as Chicago’s recent population loss).

While it is helpful to compare cities and suburbs (and these changes do matter for a lot of reasons, including perceptions), I wonder how much this covers up larger changes across metropolitan regions or feeds narratives that cities and suburbs are locked in mortal competition. All of the above data could be true while Sun Belt regions continue to grow at a strong rates. Regions could think about policies as a whole that would enhance conditions for many more people than just those in cities or suburbs.

Finally, I’ve written before about how it would likely take decades to unseat the primacy of suburban life in the United States. Was the back to city movement or great inversion just a blip on the radar screen? Or, will it cycle back at closer and closer frequencies? The global economic system may have something to do with this – what happens with the next major downturn? – yet overcoming decades of expressed preference for suburbs will not be easy.

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