The ten fastest growing American communities are all suburbs, all in South or West

Growth in the United States continues to occur in suburbs in two regions of the country:

Photo by Ingo Joseph on

The 2020 Census listed Meridian as one of the 10 fastest-growing large cities in the country. All the cities on the list grew at rates of more than 44 percent. They are all in the South and the West. And they are all suburbs…

Meridian and the nine other cities represent a trend, according to U.S. Census Bureau officials. As the country’s biggest cities grow and become increasingly unaffordable to many, their suburbs have ballooned, taking on their own identities…

The Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth metro areas have had suburbs on this list every decade, he said. “Sizable amounts of empty land for construction of housing” encourages this population growth, and that land is more commonly available in the West and South. Now, people are often going farther and farther from city centers to search for empty lots, especially in cities that have been growing for the past half-century, Perry said…

Meridian and suburbs like it, Perry said, are “a reminder that there are still some pockets of rapid population growth in certain areas of the country,” despite the past 10 years being the second slowest growing decade for the U.S. population. What the Census data makes clear is that many suburbs are taking on a life of their own.

This is a continuation of several longer trends. The population growth in the United States has generally shifted to the South and West and away from the Northeast and Midwest. Certain suburban communities continue to grow rapidly, driven by expanding metropolitan areas, a quest for cheaper land, and the celebration of sprawl and single-family homes. Many big cities are still growing but they are no longer the fastest-growing places.

At the same time, these ongoing patterns might be surprising for several reasons. First, the suburbs have endured critiques for decades yet the same pattern seems to keep repeating: small towns outside hot metro areas balloon in size and population over the course of several decades. As the article notes, this can bring a lot of change that is not universally liked by the residents there before sprawl or even some of the residents who join the sprawl. The rapidly-growing suburbs are no longer places like Naperville but the descriptions of what is happening are very similar. What have Americans learned in the seven-plus decades of postwar suburban growth?

Second, are these growth patterns sustainable in areas with water and other environmental concerns? Communities in the West are reconsidering growth amid water shortages. Is the land converted to subdivisions stable and have good drainage? Does the emphasis on driving contribute to smog and the use of land that was once more open?

Third, population increases are often accompanied by a gain in status. Larger communities are better-known, have more business activity, and become destinations. Will these rapidly-growing suburbs suddenly be put on the map (also suggesting that other places decrease in status)?

Put together, will there be cheap enough open land outside attractive cities for explosive suburban growth? Or, because there will always be some suburban land somewhere cheaper than properties in the most expensive markets, think New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, there might always be a market for sprawl.

While all other major cities grow, Chicago loses population

According to the latest Census figures, Chicago continues to be an outlier among the largest US cities:

Of the country’s 10 largest cities, the Chicago metropolitan statistical area was the only one to drop in population between 2015 and 2016. The region, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, includes the city and suburbs and extends into Wisconsin and Indiana.

The Chicago metropolitan area as a whole lost 19,570 residents in 2016, registering the greatest loss of any metropolitan area in the country. It’s the area’s second consecutive year of population loss: In 2015, the region saw its first decline since at least 1990, losing 11,324 people.

By most estimates, the Chicago area’s population will continue to decline in the coming years. Over the past year, the Tribune surveyed dozens of former residents who’ve packed up in recent years and they cited a variety of reasons: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate and weather. Census data released Thursday suggests the root of the problem is in the city of Chicago and Cook County: The county in 2016 had the largest loss of any county nationwide, losing 21,324 residents…

While Chicago suffered the largest population loss of any metropolitan area, the greatest metropolitan population gains were in Texas and Arizona. The Dallas-Fort Worth- Arlington, Texas, metropolitan area gained more than 143,000 residents in 2016, and the Houston region gained about 125,000. The Phoenix area gained about 94,000 residents and the Atlanta region gained about 91,000 people.

The ascendance of the Sunbelt continues. While this demographic shift has been in the works for decades, at what point can we declare that America is a Sunbelt nation? Granted, there is still significant power in other parts of the country – for example, New York, Chicago, Ohio, Pennsylvania – but the swath of America from Virginia to southern California both covers a lot of residents and has an increasing amount of influence.

As recession fades, Americans again move South and West

New Census data shows the move of Americans to the Sun Belt is picking up steam:

Census population estimates show that the 16 states and the District of Columbia that comprise the South saw an increase of almost 1.4 million people between 2014 and 2015. The 13 states in the West grew by about 866,000 people.

The gains represent the largest annual growth in population of the decade for both regions and signal that the multi-decade migration to the Sun Belt has resumed after being interrupted by the Great Recession of 2007-09 and the economic sluggishness and anxiety that followed.

In comparison, population growth in the Northeast and the Midwest — including what’s known as the Snow Belt — remained sluggish, growing by about 258,000 residents combined…

A search for jobs and more affordable housing were behind two-thirds of the long-distance moves made between 2014 and 2015, according to a separate census report. Family reasons, such as getting married or rejoining relatives, accounted for another quarter of households moving.

People would generally say that mobility like this is good: Americans feel more confident in moving (they can sell their house, find a new job) and chase new opportunities (we’re told a good market requires workers who are willing to go where the jobs are located). At the same time, the states that are losing population could suffer some negative consequences ranging from a loss of status (both perceived and real – the article mentions the shift in House seats) to declining tax bases.

Even as this shift to the Sun Belt continues, it would be interesting to take a long-term perspective: how has this changed the United States as a whole? While Los Angeles has certainly risen to the top (and eclipsed Chicago as the Second City), the South is still often treated as distinct rather than the new normal.

Frank Underwood gets in on the critique of McMansions

The second episode of Season One of House of Cards includes this commentary regarding McMansions:

Frank Underwood: Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power – in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who does not see the difference.

Watch the YouTube clip here.

Underwood’s statement hints at three facets of the criticisms of McMansions:

1. Sarasota represents the booming Sunbelt flooded with new money and new developments. McMansions are often associated with the sprawling suburbs of recent decades that quickly gobbled up land.

2. He suggests McMansions are about money (represented by a lobbyist here) and not about longer-term influence (power in this case). Critics suggest people buy McMansions – which often stretch them beyond their financial means or at least lead to a big mortgage – in order to impress people.

3. Critics argue McMansions are not of the same kind of quality construction as other houses or structures. With builders/developers interested in quick profits and providing as much space for as little money as possible, McMansions won’t stand the test of time. Of course, even stone buildings require some work but people expect them to last longer than suburban tract homes.

Frank Underwood might claim he is everything McMansions are not: he is not worried about first impressions but rather plays the long game of influence and power, he has attended schools like The Sentinel (modeled after The Citadel, a name suggesting stone and permanence) and Harvard Law, and he is from the old traditions of South Carolina (one of the original colonies, not an upstart booming suburb).

A number of city-dwelling Americans say they live in suburbs

A new survey from Trulia shows some city residents see themselves as living in a suburb, highlighting the blurry lines between urban and suburban areas in some cities:

To develop a standard definition of suburban that reflects what residents experience, the online real estate site Trulia, where I am the chief economist, surveyed 2,008 adults from across the U.S. We asked them to describe where they live as urban, suburban or rural, and we purposely did not define these terms for them. We also had each respondent’s ZIP code, which we used to identify his or her city, metropolitan area and state of residence. For this research, we treated ZIP codes as neighborhoods even though many ZIP codes encompass more area than what people may think of as a neighborhood.

It turns out that many cities’ legal boundaries line up poorly with what local residents perceive as urban. Nationally, 26 percent of Americans described where they live as urban, 53 percent said suburban and 21 percent said rural. (This comes close to the census estimate that 81 percent of the population is urban if “urban” is understood to include suburban areas.) Within “principal cities” of metropolitan areas (the census designates one or more cities in each metro as “principal”), respondents split 47 percent urban, 46 percent suburban and 7 percent rural, though those percentages include people in many small cities and metro areas. Looking only at respondents in the larger principal cities (those with a population greater than 100,000) of larger metropolitan areas (those with a population greater than 500,000), the breakdown was 56 percent urban, 42 percent suburban and 2 percent rural. That means close to half of people who live within city limits describe where they live as suburban.

Our analysis showed that the single best predictor of whether someone said his or her area was urban, suburban or rural was ZIP code density. Residents of ZIP codes with more than 2,213 households per square mile typically described their area as urban. Residents of neighborhoods with 102 to 2,213 households per square mile typically called their area suburban. In ZIP codes with fewer than 102 households per square mile, residents typically said they lived in a rural area. The density cutoff we found between urban and suburban — 2,213 households per square mile — is roughly equal to the density of ZIP codes 22046 (Falls Church in Northern Virginia); 91367 (Woodland Hills in California’s San Fernando Valley); and 07666 (Teaneck, New Jersey)…

Furthermore, the new census population data shows that the fastest-growing large cities tend to be more suburban. Among the 10 fastest-growing cities with more than 500,000 people, five — Austin, Fort Worth, Charlotte, San Antonio and Phoenix — are majority suburban, and a sixth, Las Vegas, is only 50 percent urban. Only one of the 10 fastest-growing, Seattle, is at least 90 percent urban.

Several quick thoughts:

1. As this article notes in addition to a number of scholars, it is difficult to measure exactly what the suburbs are. The Census Bureau definition put the suburbs between central cities in metropolitan areas and rural areas though geographically limited by county lines. As this survey notes, there are official geographic boundaries but then there are also the lived experiences of residents.

2. It is not surprising that Sunbelt city residents may be more likely to see themselves as suburban. These cities are often much bigger than cities in the Northeast and the Midwest which were hemmed in by more restrictive annexation laws around the turn of the 20th century.

3. This gets more complicated in surveys if you allow people to choose that they live in a small town as many suburban residents would choose that option.

What about American mid-sized metropolitian areas with 500,000 to 1 million residents?

The biggest American cities get a lot of attention but what about the population changes in smaller big cities? Here is a look at population trends among the 53 metropolitan areas that have between 500,000 and 1 million residents:

The United States has 53 mid-sized metropolitan areas, with populations from 500,000 to 1 million. These metropolitan areas together had a population of nearly 38 million in 2014, according to the most recent Census Bureau population estimates (Table). In number, they match the 53 major metropolitan areas (over 1 million population), though they have only one fifth of the population (178 million). The mid-sized metropolitan areas are growing somewhat slower than the major metropolitan areas, at an annual rate of 0.81% between 2010 and 2014, compared to 1.00% in the major metropolitan areas. Combined, the major metropolitan areas and the mid-sized metropolitan areas have two-thirds of the US population…

The 10 fastest growing mid-sized metropolitan areas are from every major region of the country except for the Northeast. Cape Coral, FL was the fastest growing between 2010 and 2014. Its growth rate picked up substantially in 2013 to 2014. Cape Coral (formerly called Fort Myers) was hit particularly hard by the real estate bust of the late 2000s. The core municipality itself has not only the usual street system, but an extensive canal system (photo above). It is hard to imagine a metropolitan area that feels less urban…

Virtually all of the slowest growing mid-sized metropolitan areas are former industrial behemoths that lost out in the competition for survival in the Northeast and Midwest. A visit to any of these cities will reveal either a relatively strong pre-World War II central business district or the remains of one. Each of these has a built form that looks more like Louisville or Cincinnati than the dominant pattern for new metropolitan areas that developed with a far more modest density gradient and with much weaker cores…

The list of mid-sized metropolitan areas is fluid. As noted above, a number of mid-sized metropolitan areas could move into the major metropolitan category before 2020 or 2030. On the other hand, there will be new mid-sized metropolitan areas. Three seem likely to be added by the 2020 census (Lexington, KY, Lafayette, LA and Pensacola, FL). There should be a rush of new mid-sized metropolitan areas between 2020 and 2030, at current growth rates. This could include Visalia, CA; Springfield, MO; Corpus Christi, TX; Port St. Lucci, FL; Reno, NV; Asheville, NC; Huntsville, AL; Santa Barbara, CA; and Myrtle Beach, SC.

A lot of this seems to mirror broader trends: continued Sunbelt population growth, declining populations in the Northeast and Midwest, big effects of the economic crisis and housing bubble, and slow but steady population growth overall.

While the population data is interesting, it all raises some interesting questions that I know some scholars have taken up even as the lion’s share of attention rests on the bigger cities:

1. Is the experience of living in these cities and regions qualitatively different than living in a larger city? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

2. How does the size of the region affect all sorts of things including a region’s resiliency or ability to grow? In other words, are these places simply scaled down versions of bigger cities or are they something quite different?

3. Given the proclivity of Americans to choose small towns as their preferred places to live, would these kinds of cities offer a preferred lifestyle? (Of course, people still need jobs and want certain amenities so if they had to make tradeoffs between that but a manageable size, does that lead residents to cities like these?

Stopping California and others from taking Great Lakes water

California may be facing a serious drought but the Chicago Tribune details how regulations have tightened access to Great Lakes water:

Can the Midwest repel demands from afar for its water? The eight states (Illinois included) and two Canadian provinces that border the lakes hope no outsiders can breach the invisible, 5,500-mile wall they’ve erected: In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law — let us draw a breath — the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. All eight states and Congress approved the compact, with the Canadians applauding. It’s intended to severely, although not absolutely, block new diversions of water outside the Great Lakes’ vast drainage basin (see accompanying map). A 1909 U.S. treaty with Canada also could thwart big diversions.

Whatever protection Washington giveth to any of us, of course, Washington conceivably can taketh away. Congress typically doesn’t meddle with regional water compacts. But yesterday isn’t forever: The steady erosion of U.S. House seats from Illinois and other Northern states to the Sunbelt invites peril if droughts punish those states. And the Chicagoan sworn to protect Lake Michigan may, um, evolve if arid Arizona tries to conserve water by outlawing construction of her dream retirement condo…

Yes, there’s hypocrisy for Chicagoans: This city reversed a river’s flow so Lake Michigan water would wash away its wastes. And many suburbs that draw from the lake sit outside its watershed; rain that falls on them flows to the Gulf of Mexico via the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. One mitigating factor is that water diversions in Ontario put more water into the lakes than Chicago flushes out.

The compact doesn’t cruelly forbid emergency outflows. David Naftzger, executive director of the Chicago-based Council of Great Lakes Governors, tells us it permits short-term humanitarian diversions if, say, a hurricane ravages water systems in Southeastern states.

In other words, the water isn’t completely protected but it would take a legislative act to start shipping Great Lakes water all over the country. This could become quite the political battle between Sunbelt and Rust Belt states. Which argument would win out: the Sunbelt has more people and potential or the Rust Belt has communities with much longer histories and might be more ecologically sustainable?

Two other quick thoughts related to this:

1. Interestingly, much of the Chicago suburbs are not in the Great Lakes basin as their water drains west to the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico. This reminds me that the divide of the watersheds is not that far from Lake Michigan as Native Americans and traders would need portage over a ridge to get from the Chicago River to those flowing west (like the Des Plaines River). Yet, one group suggests over 75% of residents in northeastern Illinois get their water from Lake Michigan.

2. In another editorial on the same page, the Tribune noted that watching the drought in California could help remind Great Lakes area residents that water conservation should be a priority, even with the seemingly inexhaustible supply in the Great Lakes. There is no guarantee the Great Lakes will always exist.

Patterns in “All Transit – Guess the City”

A new online quiz moves you through four levels of difficulty as you try to identify the American city by only the traces of mass transit routes. Four quick patterns I observed playing through the levels:

1. The easier ones to identify are usually (1) big cities with (2) identifiable bodies of water.

2. One thing I found helpful on the map was the difference shown between bus and train lines. If there were fewer train lines with more bus routes along straight roads, I guessed Sunbelt cities. With their more recent histories based on automobile travel, they would be more likely to implement buses on the existing roads. But, some of the cities with more bus than train lines ended up being mid-sized cities in the Midwest and Northeast that probably couldn’t financially support large train lines.

3. There are a lot of mid-sized American cities and unlike #1 above, they are (1) not as well-known and (2) often away from large bodies of water.

4. Level 4 was pretty insane. For example, could you easily spot the difference between Davie, FL, Bryan, TX, Richardson, TX, and Poway, CA via their bus stops?

Suburban sunbelt population soars again

Was the economic crisis just a blip in the ongoing growth of the suburban Sunbelt?

The unavoidable takeaway from the Census report is that Americans have resumed the westward suburban ho of the early 21st century, before the Great Recession came crashing down. None of the 20 fastest-growing metros are in the northeast. Rather, they’re in the sunny crescent that swoops from the Carolinas down through Texas and up into the west toward the Dakotas. Americans are back to sun-worshipping…

The story of immigration is slightly different. The list of cities with the greatest foreign-born influxes since 2010 includes some of these warm metros, like Houston and Dallas, but also filling out the top-ten metros for immigrants are areas where more native-born Americans are leaving, like New York (#1), Los Angeles (#2), Boston (#7), and Chicago (#9).

But the upshot seems to be that even as the recession sparked interest in an urban revival, the metros that seem to be winning the population lottery are suburbs of warm metros—including many of the very Sun Belt areas that seemed devastated by the recession.

Suburban sprawl continues…

And who are the people moving to big cities?

This is a tight feedback loop. The densest cities tend to be the most educated cities, which are also the richest cities, and often the biggest cities. They’re gobbling up a disproportionate share of college grads. And, as a result, they are becoming richer, denser, and more educated.

Both patterns can be going on at the same time: large numbers of Americans continuing to move to the Sunbelt suburbs while a good portion of educated young adults moving to hot neighborhoods in the biggest cities.

Millennials move into suburbs and less dense big cities and other urban population shifts

A new report from Trulia looks at where millennials and Baby Boomers moved as well as population growth in cities:

Extrapolating from the census data, a separate report from San Francisco-based real estate research firm Trulia Inc. showed where different age groups lived in 2013. Contrary to popular thought, millennials – Americans 20 to 34 years old – actually moved more into big-city suburbs and lower-density cities rather than dense urban areas. The three fastest growing millennial metropolitan areas were Peabody, Massachusetts, a town north of Boston, Colorado Springs, Colorado and San Antonio.

Americans 50 to 69 years old also flocked most to the “second quartile of counties,” wrote Trulia Chief Economist Jed Kolko, or big city suburbs and lower density cities. The fastest growing areas for baby boomers were Austin, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Dallas – all places that already have high concentrations of young people. In fact, Austin has the highest share of millennials than any other large metropolitan area, the Trulia report showed…

“The trend in the past year was that boomer growth [took place] in millennials’ favorite places,” Kolko says.

The population of the youngest Americans, or those ages 5 and younger, grew fastest in big cities like Washington, D.C. and New York. Frey has studied demographic changes in New York and says since 2010, there’s been a growth in the under 5 population in all of the boroughs except for Staten Island.

The biggest surprise here seems to be that more millennials moved to “big-city suburbs & lower-density cities.” At the same time, the population growth differences between the four quartiles of counties are not that large – the analysis shows roughly 0.2% differences.

Another note: the South and West continue to lead the way (all those less dense cities due to different zoning rules, annexation policies, and waves of development) in this analysis with the occasional city from elsewhere sneaking in occasionally.