Reuters

A new analysis shows downtown cores are gaining population, but the numbers are still up for debate

When the 2010 Census results came back earlier this year, many urbanists were left disappointed. Americans were to make their great march back to the city during the 2000s, but the numbers — at least to many observers; more on this below — seemed to suggest the opposite trend. Municipalities accounted for less metro area growth in the 2000s than they had in the 1990s, 9 percent to 15 percent, according to Wendell Cox at New Geography. Meanwhile the suburbs attracted 91 percent of the growth in the decade, up from 85 percent from the decade before.

The silver lining for urban advocates was the city core. Even in places that experienced general declines in city population, such as St. Louis, downtowns showed some impressive residential growth. A new analysis of intra-regional migration patterns of four large cities, using data from I.R.S. tax returns, gives this lining an additional layer of depth. Writing at New Geography, Aaron Renn concludes that movement from the suburbs to the downtown core slightly increased during the 2000s, while a shift from the core outward stayed flat or declined over the same period.

Take, for instance, the case of Philadelphia:

Or Washington, D.C.:

Renn found similar patterns in San Francisco and New York City, adding that "these are clearly figures that should inspire some at least small-scale optimism in urban advocates." The New York trend harmonizes with new data from the American Community Survey. On Friday The New York Times reported that last year, for the "first time in several decades," more people came to the city than left it:

While much of the city’s population growth in recent years has been fueled by the influx of immigrants and more people being born than dying, there have been new waves of arrivals from other parts of the country and fewer New Yorkers leaving. In 2010, 252,000 people moved to New York — 157,000 from elsewhere in the country — while 220,000 left, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That contrasts sharply with 2006, when 230,000 arrived and 341,000 left. 

The findings add a layer of complexity to the urban-suburban migration debate stirred up earlier this year by the Census data. To some, like Cox and Joel Kotkin, the numbers clearly suggested "that America continues to suburbanize," as the pair wrote in City Journal in April. Cox and Kotkin concluded that of 51 metro areas with more than a million residents, only three had cores that gained population over their suburban fringes: Boston, Providence, and Oklahoma City. In July, writing at Forbes, Kotkin argued that cities are even having trouble retaining younger population groups, calling them "temporary way stations before people migrate somewhere else" — namely, the suburbs.

Not everyone agreed. For starters, these anlayses failed to properly define the terms "city" and "suburb." As one smart growth advocate for New Jersey quickly pointed out, the data categorized Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth as suburbs, although by most standards they are the second-, third-, and fourth-most populated cities in the state. It put Hoboken in the same camp. (There seems to be a formatting problem with the original article, which was posted by Tim Evans, but the full version can still be read here, and briefer block quotes can be found on Market Urbanism and the Infrastructurist.) 

Responding at The New Republic, Christopher Leinberger writes that limiting the debate to "city" and "suburb" misses the point. The real discussion, he argues, should be about the type of built environment people prefer. More and more, that seems to be walkable, transit-oriented places in the mold of Bethesda, Old Town Pasadena, and, of course, Jersey City. Writing at the Economist's Free Exchange blog in February, Atlantic Cities contributor Ryan Avent complemented this point by looking at housing trends, which he says suggest a rising demand in city-style living relative to that of the traditional suburban lifestyle. "You can't draw conclusions about demand shifts from population numbers alone," he writes.

Reuters/Gary Hershorn

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