Cities Growing Faster Than Suburbs–Not!

A return to the cities and rejection of the suburbs is an article of faith among smart-growth planners, and their wishful thinking is often supported by breathless media reports. The latest news comes from 2011 Census estimates, which the Wall Street Journal reports as revealing that the “cities outpace suburbs in growth.” MSNBC reports that “cities grow more than suburbs [for the] first time in 100 years.”

What do the numbers actually say? Of the 51 largest metropolitan areas, the percentage growth of 26 center cities was higher than the percentage growth of their suburbs. Why 51? Maybe because if they only looked at the 50 largest areas, exactly half of their cities would have grown faster than the suburbs and then they couldn’t say “most.” The percentage growth of central cities in all 51 of the largest areas combined was also higher than of their suburbs, but not by much: 1.03 percent vs. 0.93 percent.

That’s percentage growth, and if that continued as a long-term trend, it might be meaningful. But in fact it was only one year, from 2010 to 2011 (and the 2011 numbers are only estimates). And since, in most cases, the central cities make up only a small portion of the metropolitan area, faster percentage growth doesn’t translate into a large numeric growth. For example, Atlanta grew by 2.4 percent while its suburbs grew by only 1.3 percent. But Atlanta’s 2.4-percent gain means 10,040 new residents, while the suburbs 1.3 percent gain means 62,869 new residents. In other words, Atlanta suburbs actually gained more than six times as many people as Atlanta itself.

Metro AreaCity Growth% ChangeSuburb Growth% ChangeCity-Suburb Growth% Difference
Atlanta, GA10,0402.38%62,8691.29%-52,8291.08%
Austin, TX25,2333.17%30,0393.22%-4,806-0.05%
Baltimore, MD-1,067-0.17%15,6310.75%-16,698-0.92%
Birmingham, AL1880.09%3,0080.33%-2,820-0.24%
Boston, MA-NH6,9401.12%24,8000.63%-17,8600.49%
Buffalo, NY-204-0.08%-1,050-0.12%8460.04%
Charlotte, NC-SC16,8712.30%14,6321.42%2,2390.88%
Chicago, IL-IN-WI8,8370.33%23,3320.34%-14,495-0.02%
Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN-574-0.19%6,1970.34%-6,771-0.53%
Cleveland, OH-2,360-0.60%-4,897-0.29%2,537-0.30%
Columbus, OH8,7381.11%9,1420.87%-4040.24%
Dallas-Fort Worth, TX21,5141.79%104,5232.01%-83,009-0.22%
Denver, CO16,5282.74%28,4071.46%-11,8791.28%
Detroit, MI-5,115-0.72%2250.01%-5,340-0.73%
Hartford, CT780.06%6860.06%-6080.00%
Houston, TX36,8681.75%73,2001.89%-36,332-0.14%
Indianapolis. IN5,9010.72%11,8411.26%-5,940-0.54%
Jacksonville, FL5,0250.61%6,5241.24%-1,499-0.63%
Kansas City, MO-KS2,4780.54%10,4320.66%-7,954-0.12%
Las Vegas, NV4,7780.82%11,2700.82%-6,492-0.01%
Los Angeles, CA23,9410.63%76,4890.85%-52,548-0.21%
Louisville, KY-IN3,8040.64%5,1540.75%-1,350-0.11%
Memphis, TN-MS-AR4,2700.66%3,2460.48%1,0240.18%
Miami, FL8,2412.06%83,8041.62%-75,5630.44%
Milwaukee,WI2,4600.41%2,8030.29%-3430.12%
Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI7,6791.15%27,9280.96%-20,2490.19%
Nashville, TN7,1071.18%15,1501.53%-8,043-0.35%
New Orleans. LA12,8333.69%4,6840.57%8,1493.12%
New York, NY-NJ-PA58,4670.71%37,7840.35%20,6830.36%
Oklahoma City, OK9,6151.65%10,3271.53%-7120.12%
Orlando, FL4,2931.80%27,4521.44%-23,1590.35%
Philadelphia, PA-NJ-DE-MD8,3970.55%12,4280.28%-4,0310.27%
Phoenix, AZ20,9401.45%33,2261.20%-12,2860.24%
Pittsburgh, PA5280.17%1,2670.06%-7390.11%
Portland, OR-WA8,3461.43%21,3631.30%-13,0170.13%
Providence, RI-MA-24-0.01%-817-0.06%7930.04%
Raleigh, NC10,0362.47%16,1822.21%-6,1460.26%
Richmond, VA1,3740.67%7,6100.72%-6,236-0.05%
Riverside-San Bernardino, CA4,9721.63%55,0201.40%-50,0480.23%
Rochester, NY2770.13%2780.03%-10.10%
Sacramento, CA4,6030.98%17,0491.01%-12,446-0.03%
Salt Lake City, UT25,3271.90%-7,6913.73%33,018-1.83%
San Antonio, TX14,6631.12%26,3733.13%-11,710-2.01%
San Diego, CA11,8580.99%27,4681.19%-15,610-0.20%
San Francisco-Oakland, CA12,3961.30%35,2601.04%-22,8640.26%
San Jose, CA4,1061.26%19,5571.29%-15,451-0.03%
Seattle, WA10,2981.69%41,8421.48%-31,5440.21%
St. Louis,, MO-IL-939-0.29%3,5720.14%-4,511-0.44%
Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL9,2172.74%27,3561.12%-18,1391.62%
Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC-287-0.12%5,6790.40%-5,966-0.52%
Washington, DC-VA-MD-WV13,0842.16%81,7141.63%-68,6300.53%
On a percentage basis, cities grew slightly faster than suburbs, but numerically, suburban growth swamped the growth of the central cities.

When we look at numbers rather than percentages, the claim that cities grew faster than their suburbs dims. Only eight central cities in the 51 largest metropolitan areas gained more new residents than the suburbs: Buffalo, Charlotte, Cleveland, Memphis, New Orleans, New York, Providence, and Salt Lake City. The 69,289 people that these eight cities gained over their suburbs was swamped by the 757,078 people that the suburbs in the other 43 metro areas gained over their central cities.

The Antiplanner doesn’t have any objection if people really are moving back to the cities. But don’t make false trends out of a misinterpretation of one years’s worth of data. Considering that a recent survey of young people who currently rent (and who are supposedly eager to give up the suburban lifestyle) found that 84 percent of them aspire to eventually buy a home (which is about the same percentage that most previous surveys have found), the ideologically motivated back-to-the-cities movement seems to be pure fantasy.

Note: I copied my data from Wendell Cox’s in-depth article on this subject. He notes that the Wall Street Journal‘s data are slightly different because the paper counts some suburbs, such as Aurora, CO, as cities. These differences do not significantly change the results.

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19 thoughts on “Cities Growing Faster Than Suburbs–Not!

  1. OFP2003

    You once told me that there was a conflict between “intellectual elites” and basically everyone else regarding rail mass transit. So many rail projects (Austin Texas comes to mind) don’t make any sense except in two contexts. 1. The Elite vs Common man conflict
    2. An amusing ammenity used more for city promotion than transporting people.
    This article has such bad data analysis it looks more like propoganda or outright lying than like “news” or “journalism” How could anyone come up with this without a heavy-handed agenda?

  2. FrancisKing

    ” Considering that a recent survey of young people who currently rent (and who are supposedly eager to give up the suburban lifestyle) found that 84 percent of them aspire to eventually buy a home.”

    There are homes for sale in both the cities and the suburbs. So either this statistic is meaningless, or it’s not what Antiplanner meant to say.

    Frank Reply:

    Not necessarily. If 84% want to buy a home (house) in the city, not all of these will be able to afford city prices, so they’ll necessarily be diverted to suburbs, unless they buy a 750 square foot condo instead of a suburban house at the same price.

    Dan Reply:

    If 84% want to buy a home (house) in the city, not all of these will be able to afford city prices, so they’ll necessarily be diverted to suburbs

    Yes, this is exactly the reason why the implicit argument – people prefer suburbs!!!!!!!! *heart!!* – is specious.

    As has been explained here many, many, many times.

    DS

    Frank Reply:

    “Yes, this is exactly the reason why the implicit argument – people prefer suburbs!!!!!!!! *heart!!* – is specious.”

    Anyone have data on how many move to the suburbs for economic reasons (i.e. cheaper rent/housing cost) but would prefer living the city if they could afford comparable housing? Any data on how many people currently living in the suburbs have always preferred suburbs and have never lived in an urban core?

    See, yes, some people, like myself, prefer to live in the city, but if I want to buy or even rent a SFH, I have to go to the suburbs. But many others I’ve talked to, worked with, etc., actually prefer the suburbs and have a very negative prejudice toward urban life.

    This was certainly true in suburban Portland; sheltered children’s parents never took them to “filthy” downtown. This was true downtown where at a musuem museum suburban tourists bitched about downtown, the traffic, the one-way streets, the noise, the bums, the trash, etc. (And when they left, the workers bitched about the suburbs.)

    Most recently, suburbanites constantly asked why I live in Seattle and not their suburb, a cultural desert of endless malls, chain restaurants, and big box stores. So I used my wife as an excuse; her job is in the city and her commute would suck. The truth was that the suburb in which I worked sucked, and I finally just started telling people the truth; I’d never live in that filthy, crime-ridden, ghetto suburb under any circumstances. They all loved their $h!t hole and thought I was wacko for loving Seattle.

    Clearly some people prefer urban centers and some people prefer suburban areas. Perhaps more prefer to live in suburban areas simply because more people live in suburban areas. Take Seattle, for example: 600k in the city limits and another 2.8 million live in the suburbs. So with the city center population at 20% of the metro, is it not possible that more people do actually prefer the suburbs?

    Dan Reply:

    Anyone have data on how many move to the suburbs for economic reasons (i.e. cheaper rent/housing cost) but would prefer living the city if they could afford comparable housing?

    We’ve [presented it] here many, many, many times.

    DS

  3. Frank

    “He notes that the Wall Street Journal‘s data are slightly different because the paper counts some suburbs, such as Aurora, CO, as cities.”

    Aurora a city? What a laugh! Dan’s on a fifth of an acre, and his nearest dining establishments are Quiznos and Wendy’s at a strip mall. Aurora has one of the lowest population densities of Denver’s suburbs. City? Still laughing!

    Dan Reply:

    Aurora a city? What a laugh!

    No matter how hard one wishes or pretends, it is, of course, a city. A boring, stultifying city to be sure. But by any conceivable measure, it is a city. Of course. In almost all universes and realities.

    DS

    Frank Reply:

    Yep. You’re right. But. It’s about half the density of Denver and covers about the same area. So. It’s suburban rather than urban. Still a city. A suburban city.

    bennett Reply:

    City for sure. Suburban city? Absolutely. But like so many suburban communities, the inevitable march to “City-City,” is on. And most, if not all, of Auroras autonomy is perceived. For most it’s just a part of what we call Denver.

    But as the older suburbs become the “urbs” it’s possible to increase density significantly without compromising the existing character of the community. I surely don’t believe in the “the ideologically motivated back-to-the-cities movement,” but maintaining and protecting the SF detached lifestyle will take lots of planning. Today’s planners (at least the good one’s) don’t want everybody to live in a Corbusian nightmare at the gun point of big brother (despite what antiplanners will tell you 😉 ).

    Iced Borscht Reply:

    a Corbusian nightmare at the gun point of big brother

    I like that, I’m gonna use that!

  4. kens

    The biggest problem I have with comparisons like this is how they define “city.” If they’re using the area within the central city’s city limits, the comparisons become pretty meaningless since many cities include a lot of areas that could only be considered suburbs (Houston) while others don’t (San Francisco). A more meaningful (but difficult) way to look at it would be to compare areas (i.e., census tracts) that primarily developed pre-WWII (“cities”) to those that primarily developed post-WWII (“suburbs”). Doing the comparison this way would surely yield much different results. Using this definition of city and suburb would make it extremely unlikely that a city would grow faster than its suburbs. The city typically would already be pretty much developed and the only way to increase population would be to densify existing neighborhoods (difficult in light of local opposition) or convert other land uses to residential (like was done in Portland’ Pearl District). Suburbs will grow faster because they can more easily and cheaply provide the type of housing (suburban) most people want. Not to say there won’t be a market for urban housing, but it will be limited to the minority of people who want an urban lifestyle and are willing and able to pay for it.

    Dan Reply:

    @kens

    +1

    DS

    Frank Reply:

    Even Ken knows that there’s a “minority of people who want an urban lifestyle”.

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Along those same lines, Washington, D.C. has a relatively small land area as compared to the three large suburban counties (Fairfax, Va., Montgomery, Md., Prince George’s, Md.) that surround it. But the downtown part of D.C. includes areas that are not in the District of Columbia, but across the Potomac River in Arlington County, Va. And by some definitions, the City of Alexandria, Va. is also a “central” jurisdiction.

    Dan Reply:

    Just got back from Pasadena. Kens’ argument holds there (as well as many other places). Way out in bleak Lancaster and interior deserts, very spread out and not dense. Several attendees from the US SE remarked on how dense the area was, which was definitely not built out recently. Lots of building up, not out.

    DS

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    kens wrote:

    The biggest problem I have with comparisons like this is how they define “city.” If they’re using the area within the central city’s city limits, the comparisons become pretty meaningless since many cities include a lot of areas that could only be considered suburbs (Houston) while others don’t (San Francisco).

    But even within the corporate limits of many (most?) “central cities” in the United States, there are large areas which are zoned for single-family detached (e.g. suburban) homes – and some of these areas have been zoned that way for decades.

    Not just Los Angeles and San Diego either. But Washington, D.C.; Arlington County, Virginia; Baltimore (City), Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New York City (in particular Queens County and Richmond County [Staten Island])

  5. PhilBest

    “Dan” seems to be upset with the suggestion that most people prefer suburbs, when the real problem is, according to him, that most people simply cannot afford to live in “the city”.

    But the urban areas with the least regulatory distortions have by far the most affordable homes in “the city” as well as in the suburbs. Ironically, anti-fringe-development regulations frive up the price of all urban land, and prices are always higher towards the centre of the city. And because the land is what changes in price, not the buildings, the effect is always worse closer to the centre.

    It is entirely typical for an affordable-housing city (median multiples of around 3) to have $120,000 suburban homes AND $120,000 CBD condos. But “unaffordable” cities (median multiples of around 6 and higher, and ALWAYS a consequence of fringe growth constraints) invariably have $400,000 suburban homes and $800,000 CBD condos.

    This is a consequence of a toolkit of regulations that the smart growth set assures us is aimed at “increasing housing choice”. Nicely done once again, socialists. Hayek must be chuckling about all the “unintended consequences”.

    But ironically, in the affordable cities where there IS something resembling “choice”, there does not seem to be much of a rush on the part of all the people who allegedly “prefer to live in the city”, to take advantage of the much greater affordability of that option, in those particular cities.

    What I would very much like to see, is the advocates of “smart growth to save the planet”, confront the realities of the way real estate markets and urban economies work to thwart their objectives, and start advocating the only solution that might actually achieve their stated objectives. That is, the nationalisation of land in the locations where they want people to live, for redevelopment to higher densities, to be offered to “the deserving” at COST. This would actually make these locations a bargain not to be refused.

    Seeing that the policies that the advocates push through instead of this – i.e. growth boundaries, subsidies to TOD, etc actually have the primary effect of delivering fat capital gains to incumbent property owners, and the very much secondary or negligible effect of increasing urban density at efficient locations; it is THESE advocates who have a case to answer regarding “whose pocket” they are in.

    Suburban developers are agnostics – they merely pass costs along. None of them will be found financing advocacy for low regulation. But one single major property investor has rational incentive to spend millions funding “smart growth”. Imagine how much more money the four families who have owned the heart of London for centuries, have made because London has had strict Green belt policies for 60 years; compared to if London had land rent curves more like Houston or Atlanta. Mills and Cheshire estimate in the Introduction to the Handbook of Urban Economics Volume 3 (1999), that prime central land in the most strictly growth-contained cities is 100,000 times more expensive per square foot than equivalent land in any non-growth-constained city.

    That was not a typo. The figure is One Hundred Thousand Times – more expensive.

  6. Dan

    “Dan” seems to be upset with the suggestion that most people prefer suburbs, when the real problem is, according to him, that most people simply cannot afford to live in “the city”…median multiples …Nicely done once again, socialists…ALWAYS a consequence of fringe growth constraints…

    Its as if standard ideological phrases this argumentation is new, compelling, and no one has ever addressed these…erm…”arguments” here! Brilliant.

    DS

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