People, Investment Continue to Flow to Core Cities Faster Than to Suburbs

New data confirm that central cities continue to grow faster than their suburbs. This still relatively new trend reverses a century of just the opposite, when city dwellers fled to suburbs and sprawl ate up the countryside.
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New data confirm that central cities continue to grow faster than their suburbs. This still relatively new trend reverses a century of just the opposite, when city dwellers fled to suburbs and sprawl ate up the countryside. Not that suburbs aren’t also growing, mind you, but we – and, significantly, the environment – can take some comfort in the knowledge that cities are back.

In an article (“See ya, suburbs”) published last month in USA Today, Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg summarize data from a new census report:

“Population growth has been shifting to the core counties of the USA's 381 metro areas, especially since the economic recovery began gaining steam in 2010. Basically, the USA's urban core is getting denser, while far-flung suburbs watch their growth dwindle.

“Driven by young professionals and retiring Baby Boomers who like living in cities, the trend is ‘180 degrees’ from the last decade's rush to the exurbs, says William Frey, a demographer at Washington's Brookings Institution, a research and policy group.”

Even as late as last decade, growth in outlying counties outpaced growth in core counties, when national data were aggregated. (In some metro areas, the shift had already begun.) But, most recently, “core counties in the US grew approximately 2.7% and outlying counties grew approximately 1.9% from 2010-2013. Most of the growth came from net migration, as opposed to higher birth rates,” writes Brandon Donnelly on the blog of the Sustainable Cities Collective.

I first summarized the new data on central-city growth in a 2012 article, and earlier this year analyzed a range of data that lead me to believe the new trend will be lasting.

This is great news for the environment: few things have been as damaging on so many fronts as the rampant suburban sprawl of the late 20th century. Concentrating more growth in existing communities, by contrast, significantly reduces overall driving rates, because central locations shorten travel distances and concurrent emissions of carbon and toxic air pollutants. Urban densities also facilitate public transit use, walking and bicycling. Moreover, development in central areas recycles land, buildings and infrastructure while reducing growth pressure on outer watersheds and farm and forest land.

If you care about the environment, you’re rooting for cities (or should be), although we need to make them more beautiful and lovable as great people habitat.

The even better news is that it’s not just people moving back into urban cores. It’s investment, too. In a March 31 article on The Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida breaks down the data from eleven large metro areas (and two combined metropolitan statistical areas), and finds that, in most, an equivalent amount or even a majority of venture capital investment is now going to zip codes in central cities and walkable suburbs, not sprawling outer areas. (Philadelphia, Dallas and San Jose were the only significant outliers.) In seven of the eleven metro areas, center-city start-ups alone took in more than half of all venture capital investment. Remarkably, the city of San Francisco now attracts more start-up capital than does Silicon Valley.

Florida believes that the advantages of urban areas are fueling the new trend:

“Firms want access to talent, and talented people like to cluster in dense urban areas with thick labor markets, abundant amenities and services, and a vibrant social life. Density is also much more efficient for young companies who want to rent cheap office space and offer employees access to the amenities like gyms, restaurants, and coffee shops that they’d have to provide for themselves on a suburban campus. And these companies can now thrive in smaller urban spaces, as much of tech is increasingly focused on software, apps, and social media, which do not require large campuses.”

As Florida concedes, though, this does not mean that all is well in central cities. New demand means higher prices, bringing risks of rising unaffordability and displacement of longstanding, lower-income families who toughed out the hard years. While I tend to think that’s a better problem to have than disinvestment and overall decline in city services – the misfortune of many inner cities in the not-too-distant past – these problems are real and need to be addressed. Cities must not only be environmentally and economically sustainable; they also must be just and equitable.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid’s latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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