City Growth Up; What Gives?

Representation of the Chicago metropolitan area from the GO TO 2040 Regional Plan.  Source: Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning
Seems some data is popping up that may validate my crazy theory on cyclical shifts in American development patterns over time.
Demographer William Frey has noted through various sources the core cities of the largest metro areas may be demonstrating something previously unseen in American demographic circles – not only are the cities growing, but they appear to be growing at a higher rate than their suburban fringes.  This is the opposite of a century-plus long trend of growth at the edges outpacing that of the established cities.  Frey first noted this through his analysis of 2011 American Community Survey data, looking at the population growth characteristics of the 51 U.S. metro areas with more than one million residents.  Frey noted that cities grew faster than suburbs from 2010-11.  His examination of 2012 ACS data found a similar trend.  Obviously this is a trend only evident over the last couple years, but it is indeed a reversal of long-held paradigns.  Or mesofacts.
I found the story of increasing city growth relative to suburbs to be a particularly head-scratching matter, and went looking for the data to support it.  Mr. Frey has been writing and speaking to various outlets on this data, but I’ve yet to find his specific data.  So, I decided to pull American Community Survey data on my own and see if I could find evidence of increasing city growth.  Instead of looking at the top 51 metro areas with more than one million residents, I focused on the 31 with more than two million residents.  I factored out the core city population from the MSA, and called all non-core city population suburban.  In some cases, two core cities were identified within one MSA and counted as one urban core (as in Minneapolis/St. Paul and Tampa/St. Petersburg).  I also decided to include a historical element to it, looking at population changes for cities and metropolitan statistical areas going back to 1990 (MSA definitions changed dramatically after the 1980 U.S. Census, making earlier comparisons far more difficult). 
Lastly I included an index of city to suburban growth that would show the number of city residents gained for every one suburban resident.  If a city is growing faster than its suburbs, its index would be greater than 1, and if growing more slowly than its suburbs, less than 1.  If the city is losing while the suburbs and MSA overall are growing, it will have a negative number.  If city, suburbs and MSA are all losing, and the city is the “biggest loser”, the negative number can be quite large.
This revealed some really interesting things, shown below:


Region
2000 City/Suburb Growth Index
2006 City/Suburb Growth Index
2010 City/Suburb Growth Index
2012 City/Suburb Growth Index
1
New York
NE
1.13
0.92
-0.06
2.19
2
Los Angeles
W
0.53
0.37
0.32
0.98
3
Chicago
MW
0.27
-0.57
-16.64
1.15
4
Dallas
S
0.54
0.02
0.05
0.82
5
Houston
S
0.68
0.24
0.12
0.56
6
Philadelphia
NE
-0.52
-0.91
3.85
1.97
7
Washington
S
-0.29
0.14
0.50
1.32
8
Miami
S
0.04
-0.12
9.93
1.02
9
Atlanta
S
0.13
0.28
-1.39
1.87
10
Boston
NE
0.38
-1.16
5.22
1.73
11
San Francisco
W
0.56
-1.58
3.00
0.91
12
Riverside/San Bernardino
W
0.46
0.75
-0.26
0.85
13
Phoenix
W
0.64
0.23
0.21
0.04
14
Detroit
MW
-0.86
-3.23
-10.01
-7.61
15
Seattle
W
0.43
-0.03
1.72
1.39
16
Minneapolis/St. Paul
MW
0.22
-0.42
0.71
1.12
17
San Diego
W
0.69
0.55
0.57
0.83
18
Tampa/St. Petersburg
S
0.33
0.54
-0.47
1.13
19
St. Louis
MW
-1.61
0.00
-8.98
-0.94
20
Baltimore
S
-0.74
-0.46
-0.53
0.03
21
Denver
W
0.52
0.17
1.06
1.63
22
Pittsburgh
NE
-106.23
-10.30
2.61
0.86
23
Charlotte
S
1.43
1.09
0.22
2.49
24
Portland
W
0.73
0.14
2.91
1.22
25
San Antonio
S
1.10
0.59
0.20
0.95
26
Orlando
S
0.34
0.88
1.10
1.15
27
Sacramento
W
0.41
0.45
1.95
0.85
28
Cincinnati
MW
-0.67
-1.17
-2.22
-0.17
29
Cleveland
MW
-1.18
-3.49
-0.69
-3.19
30
Kansas City
MW
0.09
-0.20
6.16
0.61
31
Las Vegas
W
0.99
0.55
0.19
0.81
Average
All
0.47
0.16
0.30
0.95
A little off-the-cuff analysis:
·         From 1990-2000, cities added less than one resident for every two suburban residents, with only Charlotte, New York and San Antonio adding residents at a greater rate than their surrounding suburbs.  Many American urban advocates will note the decade of the 1980s as the nadir for cities, when nearly all were losing out to the suburbs or the Sun Belt.  However, the ‘90s was the beginning of a turnaround for cities.  Twenty-three of the 31 core cities in my database grew between 1990 and 2000, reversing earlier trends.  But that still wasn’t enough to herald a “back-to-the-city” movement.  Indeed, Charlotte and San Antonio may have only outpaced suburban growth due to aggressive annexation policies.
·         From 2000-2006, cities added only one resident for every six residents in the suburbs, with only Charlotte adding at a greater rate than the suburbs.  As the housing boom shifted into high gear, it became apparent that suburbs were the focal point of the boom.  Once again, Charlotte may be an outlier here due to annexation.
·         From 2006-2010, the rate of city growth relative to suburban growth doubled, and eleven cities showed growth rates faster than their surrounding suburbs.  This five-year period showed a weird mix of events that were impacted by the plateau of the housing boom and ensuing market crash.  Some cities viewed as attractive urban places, like Miami, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco, reversed earlier trends of losing out relative to their suburbs by (my guess) capitalizing on condo development, among other things.  But several cities where the suburban development dynamic had taken on a strong hold continued to fare poorly.
·         From 2010-2012, cities continued to improve their growth relative to suburbs, with 14 of 31 growing faster than their suburbs.  With a nationwide city growth index of .95, there has been a nearly one-to-one relationship between city growth and suburban growth since 2010.  Interestingly, there appears to be a growing regional dynamic to the shifting trend.  Cities growing faster than their suburbs appear to be largely located on the East or West Coast, with a few outliers.   Cities growing more slowly than their suburbs appear to be Sun Belt locales in the South and West, and the struggling Rust Belt shrinking cities of the Midwest.
So what does this mean?  It appears there is some merit to the claims of those who say that people are expressing a preference for more diverse and heterogeneous living environments, if not necessarily more dense.  More and more people may be choosing amenities and convenience over large private spaces.  However, this has to continue for some time for the shift to become a trend.

There are those who will suggest that this is still residue fallout from the economic collapse and slow recovery we’ve experienced over the last five years, and that cannot be totally ruled out.  But it also appears that narratives around cities are shifting, and preferences for the amenities offered in urban environments may be shifting.  Ultimately, time will tell.  My guess is that a consensus on whether this is a trend or fad will be evident within five years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s