Where Cities Are Growing Faster Than Their Suburbs

In 19 of the 51 largest U.S. metros, including knowledge centers like New York, the city grew faster than the suburbs last year.

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Reuters/Steve Marcus

Where is growth happening in America: cities or suburbs?  For much of the last half-century, growth was a suburban phenomenon. But over the past decade or so, many have noted the comeback of cities and the urban core—a phenomenon Alan Ehrenhalt dubs “the great inversion.” In fact, the question of where growth is centered—in cities or suburbs—has emerged as one of the great dividing lines in the debate over urban America’s future.

Last month, Brookings Institution demographer William Frey parsed through the most recent Census data on population growth to dig into this fundamental question.

Frey focused on the data for the first third of this decade, using population numbers from 2010 through July 2013, comparing the growth of core or “primary cities” and their suburbs across America’s 51 largest metro areas (those with one million or more people).

And what he found seems like good news for urbanists and city boosters. Overall, his numbers appear to support the notion of a great inversion from the previous era of mass suburbanization. Between 2010 and 2013, primary city populations have grown faster than their suburbs.

But Frey found that this gap appears to have narrowed by 2012-2103. Overall, the primary cities of metros with more than a million people total grew at a rate of 1.02 percent in 2012 to 2013, compared to a rate of 1.13 percent for the year before. Their suburban regions, in contrast, grew 0.96 percent in 2012-2013, about the same as the 0.95 percent growth rate for the previous year.

Frey found that 19 of the 51 largest metropolitan areas in the country saw their center cities grow faster than their suburbs between 2012 and 2013. Notably, these include many of the vibrant knowledge economy centers, including New York, D.C., Denver, and Seattle. (Frey’s full data set for large metros can be found here.)

With the help of my team at the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI), I decided to dig in a little further to the where and the what of urban and suburban growth over the past year (2012 to 2013 only), comparing both metrics to overall metropolitan growth.

The interactive map below, which MPI’s Zara Matheson made with the aid of ESRI technology, shows the breakdown of overall population growth in America’s largest metro areas. Those in pink saw faster suburban growth rates, while those in green saw faster center-city growth rates. Click on each bubble for a full breakdown.

Several metro areas saw incredibly fast rates of primary city growth, with seven experiencing a more than 2 percent growth rate. These are not just the usual suspects of urban revival but include high-tech, knowledge economy hubs like D.C., San Jose, Austin, Raleigh-Cary, Denver, and Seattle. Others include the energy centers of Houston, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans, and even sprawling Sunbelt growth corridors like Phoenix, Orlando, and San Antonio. All of these metros experienced faster growth in their primary cities than the San Francisco, Boston, or New York metros did.

The metro where the primary city grew fastest compared to the suburbs was New Orleans, where the primary city grew 2.4 percent compared to just 0.5 percent for the suburbs—a product of rapid urban rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina. Charlotte, Seattle, and Minneapolis-St. Paul also saw considerably faster growth in their primary cities than in their suburbs, though the margin was substantially less than in New Orleans. City growth outpaced the suburban growth in Columbus, Richmond, Denver, D.C., San Diego, Raleigh, Boston, New York, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Tampa, Orlando, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

There were two metros with similar city and suburb growth rates—Chicago and Portland.

In contrast, suburban growth outpaced urban gains in the remaining 30 large metros. These include both traditionally sprawl-oriented Sunbelt metros like Jacksonville, Houston, Las Vegas, and Nashville, and Rustbelt metros like Detroit, Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. The big surprise is San Francisco, whose suburbs grew 1.5 percent—more than the 1.3 percent growth rate experienced in its primary city. Equally surprising, perhaps, is the fact that primary city growth outpaced suburban growth in the high-tech nerdistan of Silicon Valley, where the primary city of the San Jose metro grew 1.5 percent, compared to a 1.3 percent growth rate in the suburbs.

The chart below compares the patterns for primary city, suburban, and overall metro growth for the 20 largest U.S. metros. 

Comparing metropolitan, city,  and suburban growth (Zara Matheson).

To look a little deeper at how city, suburban, and metro growth rates compare, my colleague Charlotta Mellander ran a correlation analysis on these numbers. All three were closely correlated. Both city and suburb growth were quite closely associated with overall metro growth (with correlations of .90 and .96, respectively), while city and suburban growth were closely correlated with one another (with a correlation of .77). Essentially, growth begets growth. 

Even though these new figures show that city growth is down slightly from 2010 to 2011, there is little reason to think that the urban comeback was a flash in the pan. City growth remained higher than suburban growth in a third of all large metros. It is true that this number—19 metros—is lower than the same figure in 2010 to 2011, when 27 metros, more than half, saw faster growth in their primary cities. But, significantly, it remains far ahead of where it was during the past decade, when Frey found that just five large metros saw their primary cities grow faster than their suburbs over the course of the 2000s. The era of rapid suburbanization at the expense of city vitality may, at long last, have come to a close. 

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here