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Cities or Suburbs? Where's the Growth Really Happening?

In the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about population shifts and the possible resurgence of cities. So much so that the Joint Center of Housing Studies (JCHS) has decided to further investigate this possible phenomenon.  Dr. Rachel Drew is a Post-Doc Research Fellow at the JCHS leading this effort.

It was in the 1960s that, for the first time, there were more Americans living in the suburbs than in the cities. This pattern has continued and, according to 2013 Census estimates, 53% of the population lives in suburbs and 32% lives in cities. While the share of population in cities and suburbs hasn’t changed much since 2010, what researchers started noticing in the past five years was that cities started growing more than suburbs. In 2011, the Census data showed that 27 of the nation's 51 largest metropolitan areas had their city centers grow faster than suburbs between July 2010 and July 2011.

2012 and 2013 data showed similar trends and this started intriguing people. Had there been a shift in preference? Did people prefer to live closer to the urban core? Or was this a result of the economic downturn? Was this just a temporary wave?

Leigh Gallagher wrote the book “The End of the Suburbs” to investigate some of these questions. She concluded that suburbs weren’t actually disappearing, but they were becoming more urban by creating lively city centers where the neighborhood could gather and offering accessibility to transportation.

Dr. Drew also began investigating this phenomenon and, so far, she has tested three possible explanation of why cities are growing more than suburbs:

  • The downturn in housing markets stunted suburban construction, while multifamily development in denser locations rose, allowing city populations to increase faster
  • Increases in younger and minority populations who traditionally favor city living
  • Fundamental shift in preference away from sprawling suburbs and toward more urban and amenity-rich locations

As she investigated each of these, the data behind them didn’t support the hypothesis. For example, the theory that multi-family is taking over single-family has some validity because multi-family has been growing stronger and has rebounded faster than single-family from the recession; however, there are still more single-family units built than multi-family. Therefore, you can’t say there has been a full shift.

At this point Dr. Drew believes that there are actually issues with data and definitions that are biasing the findings toward showing more city growth. In fact the Census changed their methodology of estimating populations in 2010 (when we first noticed this growth shift) and the definition of what is a city versus a suburb is still blurry. Dr. Drew will continue her research and is focusing on trying to determine:

  • Is this a temporary phenomenon or long-term trend?
  • Why some cities are growing faster than their suburbs, and not others?
  • Does data accurately reflect the reality of where people are choosing to live?

Even more interesting is that just last week, the updated Census of county population estimates showed that the suburbs are again growing faster than more urban areas, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. So maybe this really was just a temporary phenomenon as people dealt with the recession. I’m curious to see how Dr. Drew incorporates this into her study and how it changes her conclusions.

In my opinion, there would only be a full shift towards cities and urban living if the quality of education improved in the cities. As millennials age, get married and form families – even though these milestones are being delayed, once they do happen – they will search for neighborhoods where they can grow their families and provide quality education for their kids. Education becomes a big part of the decision about where to live and suburbs still have an edge on quality and cost of education over cities. Overall, similar to what Ms. Gallagher mentions in her book, I believe the trend towards lively, active neighborhoods is real and that suburbs will become more urbanized moving forward.

What do you think?

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