Ever since the housing bubble burst in 2007, urban-planning wonks have been looking for signs that the inner city might finally be making a comeback. Sure, the suburbs have been popular for decades. But perhaps high gasoline prices and demographic trends (more singles and childless couples) will nudge Americans back to urban centers again. Right?
Trouble is, the evidence on this score is still hard to come by. Case in point: Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece suggesting that, for the first time in decades, many city centers were growing faster than their suburbs. According to Brookings demographer William Frey, who analyzed data from the Census Bureau, the inner cities in America's 51 biggest metro areas grew 1.1 percent between July 2010 and July 2011. Their suburbs, by contrast, grew just 0.9 percent. Cities like Atlanta and Washington, DC appeared to show much stronger growth in their cores than in the 'burbs.
That sounds impressive — an urban revival! But as David King, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University notes, these stats can be a little misleading. Urban cores are still much, much smaller than the suburbs. Which means they can show higher growth rates even if they're adding far fewer people in absolute terms:
Consider Atlanta, the second fastest growing city compared with its suburbs according to the chart at top. Atlanta has 432,427 people as of July 2011 and grew at 2.4%. The suburbs have 4,926,778 in July 2011 and grew at 1.3%. Here is the data source.
This means that the metro growth was 73,361 for the year, 10,135 settled in Atlanta and 63,226 settled in the suburbs. In percentage terms, 14% of the growth happened in the central city and 86% happened in the suburbs. That doesn't suggest a sea change in attitude.
Long story short: The suburbs still dominate. And that shouldn't be surprising. They've dominated the American landscape for so long that any reversal will likely prove gradual. As Kaid Benfield notes: "Between 1988 and 1996, central cities together had suffered an net outmigration of over two million people in each year, while suburbs experienced a collective net gain of between two and three million people each year."
The fact that this mass exodus to the suburbs appears to have slowed is quite significant. What's more, as Benfield details, there are signs that a growing number of Americans would prefer to trade in their white picket fences and long commutes for the noisy joys of urban living (or at least for denser, walkable neighborhoods in the suburbs). One pressing question, however, is whether these denser areas can actually build enough housing to satisfy all that demand. Until that happens, it's too early to declare that cities have made a comeback.
P.S. Meanwhile, over at the Urbanophile, Chris Briem of Pittsburgh's Urban Center for Social and Urban Research offers an important warning about drawing any sweeping conclusions from the latest Census estimates. Many projections about growing urban centers may well be wrong — or at least not based on solid data.