Cities are growing faster than suburbs

The 2010 Federal Census data documents a faster rate of growth in cities compared to their respective suburbs, for the first time in nine decades. The cities with the sharpest growth rate change are Washington, D.C., Denver, and Atlanta.

Every region of the United States sees this shift in the 2010 data, New York, Milwaukee, Seattle, Austin, Cincinnati, and scores of others, listed in the Brookings Institute article that reported the data.

Regarding the three outlier cities in the graph, Atlanta included:

As in most of the country, their suburbs disproportionately bore the brunt of the late 2000s housing collapse.  However, all three have important urban amenities and economic bases that are attractive to young people and other households now clustering in their cities.

For whatever reason people are staying in the city; by choice, or involuntarily (perhaps they are unable to qualify for a mortgage or have incurred some other problem related to the housing market crisis), or they are moving into the city, leaving suburbs behind for urban amenities and lifestyle.

This new ‘tipping point” clearly has its origins in the downturns in the national housing and labor markets of the past five years. Young people, retirees, and other householders who might have moved to the suburbs in better times are unable to obtain mortgages or employment. Many remain stuck in rented or shared homes that are more often located in cities.  Yet what may look like a temporary lull in the broad sweep of suburban development may turn out to be an opportunity for some cities to showcase their oft cited lifestyle and cultural amenities to a new generation of residents and developers, so that in some regions a new version of the American Dream could take root.

There is an interesting thread in this larger trend: are the motives really changing, or is this people reacting to their situations by making do, and not by achieving what they had initially planned for their lives? Is this a new version of the American Dream for the 21st century, or is this a temporary lull in our obsession with single-family homes, giant highways and matching cars, and a big yard with a pool?

I hope that the number of people scorned by the market collapse, the trauma of foreclosure, and the massive loss of value on the homes and mortgages they purchased can actually have a lasting effect on our collective psyche. I hope it challenges us to really think deeply about our means, our goals, and our desired lives. There are many ways to live contently, and the idea that a house must be the center of this is ludicrous. We have been skewed by decades of suburban dreams and urban sprawl.

So this report is great news. And I am a more recent transplant than even this data suggests. Give it another ten years, and we will be able to see if this was a fluke, affected by economic recession of the time, or whether it will have longer-term effects on where we live. Give it fifty years, and then we'll really know the role the city, and the suburbs, will have, especially as the planet swells to population 9 billion.