Since at least World War II, suburbs have represented the quintessential American mode of living. That may be changing.
More than half of the country’s 51 largest metropolitan areas saw greater growth within city limits than in their suburbs between July 2010 and July 2011, according to an analysis of new census data by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey and others. As the Wall Street Journal points out, that’s a reversal of a broad trend that has held since the 1920s, when the rise of the automobile prompted Americans to flee dirty, crowded cities for greener pastures.
This shift has been in the making for over a decade. As early as 1999, a Brookings report noted that “declining crime statistics, falling unemployment rates, balanced municipal budgets, and a resurgence in downtown living have cities across the country claiming that they are in the midst of a renaissance.” Back then, though, those claims were undermined by Brookings’ finding that suburbs were still outpacing cities in job growth. According to Frey’s new analysis, just five of the largest metropolitan areas saw greater urban than suburban population growth between 2000 and 2010. (One caveat: The U.S. Census itself can't confirm Frey's numbers, since it doesn't break down the data in this way.)
The question now is whether the past year’s reversal is a blip or a leading indicator of America’s urban future. If you think it’s the former, you blame the housing bust and the economy for the suburbs’ short-term slowdown, and predict that they’ll resume their growth when the market clears.
But there are deeper long-term trends at work. Perhaps the most important is a fundamental change in cities’ economies from industry to services, with loud, smelly factories moving out while bankers and tech startups move in. That has been accompanied by a demographic rebalancing: “white flight” has ended, with affluent young professionals moving back into cities and driving up housing prices. Meanwhile, immigrants and blacks are increasingly finding homes in the suburbs.
Old, dense cities like New York and Boston have had the most visible recoveries, but the latest data show that a new wave of metropolitan areas is leading the way in urban growth. New Orleans, which saw the greatest differential between city and suburban growth, is probably a special case, because the city is still recovering from Katrina. But Atlanta, Denver, Charlotte, and Washington D.C. also all saw significant repatriations of their urban cores. (Somewhere inside the Beltway, Matt Yglesias is surely cheering.)
The United States, it seems, may be joining the massive global trend toward urbanization. Now we can start debating whether that’s a good thing.