In the tug of war between the suburbs and the city, the suburbs are once again on top, growing faster than cities for the first time since 2010, according to new population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The shift reflects a relatively steeper decline in the growth rate in cities, rather than an increase in suburban growth. In the past six years the rate in large U.S. cities slowed from 1.1 percent in 2010 to 0.82 percent; in the suburbs over the same period, growth declined from 0.95 percent to 0.89 percent.
In the big picture, it represents a return to normal. Since the middle of the 20th century, when people started buying cars and building homes outside of cities en masse, the suburbs had maintained their edge. It was only in 2010 that city growth began to outpace suburban growth.
The turnaround belies the much-hyped narrative that millennials have shunned the suburbs because they preferred city living, said William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.
“Up until now we really didn’t know where this city growth was going; it almost came out of the blue, and it surprised a lot of people,” he said. Now that the economy is improving, he said, it could turn out that young people were choosing city dwellings over larger suburban houses out of necessity rather than preference, he said.
If so, it may be that the “decade of the city” is over. Growth is declining in both the Snow Belt of the northeast and in Midwest metropolitan areas as well as the SunBelt areas of the South and West. The number of big cities losing populations, just 5 in 2012, shot up to 14 last year.
Nationwide, the city losing the most people was Chicago, followed by Baltimore, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis and Cleveland. Among the 17 largest cities, 13 grew more slowly last year than the year before.
The District of Columbia is still growing faster than its surrounding areas, due to a sharper decline in suburban growth. The city had the nation’s fifteenth-highest numeric increase last year, at 10,793.
Still, its rate of growth slipped from a high of 2.5 in 2010-11 to 1.6 last year, though that was less precipitous than the decline in counties such as Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince George’s, where growth has flattened over the past decade.
Ten of the 15 fastest-growing large cities were in the South, with four of the top five in Texas. The rest comprised four in the West and one in the Midwest. No Northeastern cities were among the nation’s fastest growing.
Around the country, New York remains the largest city by far, with 8.5 million people, more than twice the population of the next largest city, Los Angeles. Despite a population loss of 8,638, Chicago is still the third-largest city, with 2.7 million people.
The largest numeric increase of any city was Phoenix, Arizona, which added 32,113, about 88 people a day on average, between 2015 and 2016.
That is consistent with recent trends showing population migration in the U.S. reverting back to traditional patterns, with the Northeast and Midwest losing people and the South and West gaining people.
As for millennials choosing suburban versus city life, a 2015 survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that 66 percent of people born after 1977 want to live in single-family homes outside of the urban center, including those currently living in cities. The new Census estimates may reflect that.
“It’s not the end of city growth, but it does show that cities are maybe not going to be as dominant as people thought in terms of their growth,” Frey said.