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 Area||City Growth||% Change||Suburb Growth||% Change||City-Suburb Growth||% Difference|
|Dallas-Fort Worth, TX||21,514||1.79%||104,523||2.01%||-83,009||-0.22%|
|Kansas City, MO-KS||2,478||0.54%||10,432||0.66%||-7,954||-0.12%|
|Las Vegas, NV||4,778||0.82%||11,270||0.82%||-6,492||-0.01%|
|Los Angeles, CA||23,941||0.63%||76,489||0.85%||-52,548||-0.21%|
|Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI||7,679||1.15%||27,928||0.96%||-20,249||0.19%|
|New Orleans. LA||12,833||3.69%||4,684||0.57%||8,149||3.12%|
|New York, NY-NJ-PA||58,467||0.71%||37,784||0.35%||20,683||0.36%|
|Oklahoma City, OK||9,615||1.65%||10,327||1.53%||-712||0.12%|
|Riverside-San Bernardino, CA||4,972||1.63%||55,020||1.40%||-50,048||0.23%|
|Salt Lake City, UT||25,327||1.90%||-7,691||3.73%||33,018||-1.83%|
|San Antonio, TX||14,663||1.12%||26,373||3.13%||-11,710||-2.01%|
|San Diego, CA||11,858||0.99%||27,468||1.19%||-15,610||-0.20%|
|San Francisco-Oakland, CA||12,396||1.30%||35,260||1.04%||-22,864||0.26%|
|San Jose, CA||4,106||1.26%||19,557||1.29%||-15,451||-0.03%|
|St. Louis,, MO-IL||-939||-0.29%||3,572||0.14%||-4,511||-0.44%|
|Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL||9,217||2.74%||27,356||1.12%||-18,139||1.62%|
|Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC||-287||-0.12%||5,679||0.40%||-5,966||-0.52%|
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.