This Chart Tool Shows How City Centers Are Doing Better Than Inner Suburbs

A new report tracks demographic trends across 66 U.S. metro areas.

Image Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service/University of Virginia
A report provides new data backing Aaron Renn's "new donut" model for cities, but it also highlights key exceptions to the model. (Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service/University of Virginia)

A new study published by the Demographics Research Group of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service analyzes the demographic trends of 66 major U.S. metros, measuring how they change with distance from the city center. The report's charting tool helps visualize the data on an "objective, intuitive spatial scale" rather than on subjective "urban"/"suburban" categories, says Luke Juday, the author of the report.

The new tool will provide endless fun for chart-loving city wonks, but for now we're focused on two key insights.

Support for the "New Donut" Model of Cities

The report provides comprehensive evidence for Aaron Renn's "new donut" model of cities (pictured in above image, on the right). Renn's model proposes that city centers and outer-ring suburbs are doing well economically, but inner-ring suburbs are struggling with a new influx of poverty. Juday's analysis shows one reason the urban cores have revived is they're attracting a younger, richer, and more educated population.

Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, is a good case study for the "new donut" model. Here's what the city's education levels, income, and age distribution looked like in 1990 (the orange line) and 2012 (the maroon line):

Juday highlights some nuances in the wealth distribution trends from his analysis of major U.S. cities. Despite the influx of rich, young people into the urban cores, poverty isn't necessarily decreasing there. The data don't quite establish that these newer, richer residents are displacing the poor who previously lived there.

"It varies quite a bit from city to city, but it's not quite what you would expect from a typical gentrification narrative," he says.

Some cities show seemingly counterintuitive trends. In Austin, Texas, for example, income, education levels, and poverty have all risen:

With Exceptions: "Magnetic" Cities and "Old Donut" Cities

There are are a few notable exceptions of cities that don't display the "new donut" trend. Juday slots these outlier cities into two groups. The first includes Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, Madison, and other cities that have no inner-ring suburbs—areas where cities have seen rising poverty rates and falling incomes. The report refers to the cities in this group as "magnetic cities":

“Magnetic” cities have the highest incomes and education rates in the center and the highest increases in the center as well. But rather than dip down and rise again, these rates stay the same or decline gradually all the way to the periphery, suggesting that proximity to the core is desirable at any distance and there is no large inner ring.

You can see this clearly in Seattle's per capita income chart:

The second group has an urban core that has grown poorer since the 1990s. This group is called the "old donut" group because it recalls Renn's older model in which the suburbs surround the city center. The group contains cities like Las Vegas, Hartford, and Fresno, where the growth and wealth is still concentrated in the suburbs.

Here are the income and poverty charts for Las Vegas that show how its suburbs still have the economic advantage:

"Whatever is causing the revival of other cities' downtowns is clearly not happening there," Juday says.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.