For the first time in a century, America’s largest cities are growing faster than their suburbs. An Associated Press story widely covered in the media yesterday, including in Time, said the findings from new 2011 census estimates reveal a “dramatic switch” from the previous pattern of suburban dominance.
Indeed, in our 1999 book Once There Greenfields, Don Chen, Matt Raimi and I reported that, between 1980 and the mid-1990s, suburban population had grown a staggering ten times faster than central-city population in our largest metro areas. Between 1988 and 1996, central cities together had suffered an net out-migration of over two million people in each year, while suburbs experienced a collective net gain of between two and three million people each year.
A lot has changed since those bleak times for cities, from revitalization of declining neighborhoods to transit investment to a disaffection among suburbanites with long commutes and rising gasoline prices. The recession and its aftermath have certainly underscored the last of those factors. But the biggest change of all may be demographic: the portion of the housing market claimed by families with children, the prime market for suburban living, has been shrinking at the same time as the Millennial generation, which strongly favors walkable lifestyles and urban living, has been coming of age. Retiring baby boomers are also in many cases giving up large-lot living in favor of city life.