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U.S. census data released today shows a decline in exurban populations.

It just might be, according to today's story in USA Today by Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg.

The story is built around a detailed analysis (supported by a terrific interactive map) of census data on population growth. The authors compared the data from 2006 with data from 2011.

Here's what population change looked like in 2006 across the U.S. (population growth is red, loss is blue):

And in 2011, the map below shows where the U.S. population grew and shrank: 

All but two of the 39 counties with 1 million-plus people — Michigan's Wayne (Detroit) and Ohio's Cuyahoga (Cleveland) — grew from 2010 to 2011.

  • Twenty-eight of the big counties gained faster than the nation, which grew at the slowest rate since the Great Depression (0.73%). The counties' median growth rate was 1.3% (half grew faster, half slower).
  • Central metro counties accounted for 94% of U.S. growth, compared with 85% just before the recession.

William Frey, of the Brookings Institution, told the paper "this could be the end of the exurb as a place where people aspire to go when they're starting their families." And Robert Lang of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas said "it shows the locational advantage of being in the biggest cities. The core is what's left of our competitiveness as a country."

What a change from just a couple of decades ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city was left for dead, the core empty and abandoned. Writers opined on the rise of the exurb as the new population and economic center and identified the suburban "nerdistan" as the driving force of American innovation and technology.

The USA Today article points to what I have dubbed "The Great Reset" as powering this shift from the suburbs back to the city.  

"The financial and foreclosure crisis forced more people to rent. Soaring gas prices made long commutes less appealing. And high unemployment drew more people to big job centers. As the nation crawls out of the downturn, cities and older suburbs are leading the way," the article notes.

This is part and parcel of what geographers identify as a "spatial fix," one of the central ways advanced economies rebound from economic crisis. The U.S. is in the earliest phases of this current spatial fix, which revolves around renewed development of urban space, particularly at the once neglected core. This is a reversal of the giant development mistake of industrial capitalism, which generated a built environment, and economic landscape that required decentralization and wasted space.  

The city has become the key social and economic unit of today's economy, and its clustering and density the are the source of innovation, productivity improvement, and jobs. Urban centers across the country are drawing new businesses including high-tech start-ups.

It's not just superstar cities that are seeing the shift. A major high-end retail complex is planned for Miami's Design District. Downtown Las Vegas is home to Zappos' new headquarters and a budding live-work district is attracting high-tech startups. Downtown Detroit is home to the new headquarters of Quicken Loans and yesterday a new Twitter office was announced there.

Recall how quickly the decline of the the center city to rise of the suburbs occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. We may well be on the verge of any even more accelerated and abrupt shift today.

Photo credit: Simon Gurney/Shutterstock

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