The Revenge of the City?

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You get the feeling that, after nearly a century of blooming, booming suburbs, we're all waiting for the inflection moment when we can finally announce the unequivocal comeback of the American City.

Is this it?

More than half of the country's 51 largest cities grew faster than their suburbs in the year before July 2011, according Census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution for the Wall Street Journal. The trend is truly cross-country. Cities as diverse as Atlanta, New York, Phoenix, and Boston are growing faster inside their city limits than outside. 

Our always-fabulous sister site The Atlantic Cities brings some maps to the party that show the metros with faster urban growth versus those with faster suburban growth. See any trends?

Higher Rate of Urban Growth


Higher Rate of Suburban Growth


I've got three observations: (1) Northeastern cities are, mostly, growing faster than their surrounding suburbs; (2) Texas and California suburbs are, mostly, growing faster than their cities; (3) There aren't many cities where the urban/suburban growth gap is greater than half a percentage point. In the urban column, the Big City Winners are Atlanta, Denver, Washington, and Charlotte. In the suburban column, you've got Jacksonville and Indianapolis. (I'm excluding New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina.) To me, these graphs suggest, but do not prove, that the country's highest-productivity areas are re-urbanizing at a faster rate.

To borrow a point I made here, during the late 1990s and 2000s, U.S. migration resembled a river flowing from the New England to the Sunbelt. It was a kind of suburban Space Race, as cheap gas prices, lax borrowing rules, the decline of manufacturing in the Midwest, and plenty of housing encouraged families to push south and west. Arizona and Nevada led the nation in percent growth year after year, adding nearly a third of their year-2000 population in a decade. After the recession, suburban growth collapsed, and even with historically low migration, cities are staging something of a comeback.

Screen Shot 2012-03-12 at 12.13.39 PM.png

A chunky jambalaya of variables are pushing families from the suburbs: from high gas prices, to high youth unemployment, to personal technology which makes it more satisfying to live alone than it's ever been. But when you widen the lens a bit, you can appreciate that even if the cities aren't growing faster than the suburbs in total, the very fact that they're getting close is something remarkable.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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