Thursday, May 29, 2014

The "Decade of the City?" New Census data sheds light

In 1910, 25% of metropolitan (non-rural) residents lived in suburbs; by 2000, this figure had more than doubled, with 62% of Americans who lived in metropolitan areas living outside of central cities.  (these calculations come from data presented on p. 33 of this Census publication.)

There is great interest among urbanists and others over whether these suburbanization trends will reverse.  In our analysis of the period from 2000 to 2010, Matt Kahn and I did not find evidence that "city living is back."  (see pages7-21 of this report.)  Indeed, this figure shows that suburban population growth was about three times faster than central city pop growth from 2000-2010.

Last week, the Census released the 2013 population figures for cities.  William Frey is a demographer at Brookings Institution who is quick to report on urban population trends.  Frey published a piece using the new data, titled Will this be the Decade of Big City Growth?

What we find is that, for each of the last three years, central cities grew faster than suburban areas.  So I think there is suggestive evidence that "city living is back," but it is too early to say this with confidence.  As Frey points out, perhaps suburban growth will pick up again once the economy fully recovers.

This will be an interesting phenomenon to follow over the coming decade.  In the meantime, it is important to keep in mind there there is important inertia built into population growth patterns.  As the figure below demonstrates, cities that grew over the 2000-2010 period were likely to grow over the 2010-2013 period--and cities, like Detroit and Cleveland that shrunk between 2000 and 2010 were also likely to keep shrinking.

There is one very interesting outlier in my figure.  New Orleans lost more population between 2000 and 2010 than any other city in my sample, but its growth rate between 2010 and 2013 was faster than any city in my sample!  (The sample includes the central city of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, based on 2010 population estimates.)  Of course much of this is due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.  But New Orleans city grew by 8.8%, while suburban areas only grew by 1.7%.  I'm haven't studied this closely enough to rule out the possibility that the storm disproportionately affected the central city versus suburban areas, but this evidence for New Orleans is at least consistent with my observations, and data I presented in an earlier post, that urban quality of life in New Orleans is attracting residents.

At least in New Orleans and some other place, I'm starting to think there is pretty compelling evidence that city living is back.