When comparing areas on the fringe to growth in metros, the exurbs are gaining big.

The exurbs – those deconcentrated towns flung far beyond the urban core and just outside the suburban spread – have been growing faster than the rest of the country in recent years, even amid the housing bust and economic recession. According to a new analysis from the Urban Institute and researchers at the U.S. Census Bureau, these areas have seen growth rates that far outpace more densely populated areas as well as the nation as a whole.

Between 2000 and 2010, the total U.S. population grew about 10 percent, from 281 million to 309 million. Over that same time, the exurban population grew by more than 60 percent, from about 16 million to almost 26 million people, according to the analysis. As this chart shows, rates of growth are significantly higher in exurban areas than in more urban or densely populated areas.

Source: The Urban Institute

A new interactive map from the Urban Institute shows how the growth rates in exurban areas have been higher – and in some cases much higher – than the growth rates in their corresponding metropolitan areas. The map is based on an analysis by U.S. Census Bureau researchers Todd Gardner and Matthew Marlay, who looked at census data from 2000 and 2010, and American Community Survey data from 2005 through 2009. Their data is also available in a sortable table.

The exurbs of Las Vegas, for example, saw an average annual growth rate of 17.2 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the metropolitan area as a whole had an average growth rate of just 3.6 percent. Phoenix's exurban growth rate was 14.7 percent during that time, compared to its metro-wide rate of 2.6 percent. Omaha's exurban rate of 11.9 percent also outpaced its metro-wide rate of 1.2 percent. Ninety-six of the 98 most populous metropolitan areas saw higher growth rates in the exurbs than in the metro areas as a whole between 2000 and 2010.

"The only metros in which the exurbs grew at a slower rate than the rest of the region were Modesto and Santa Rosa-Petaluma, CA, but both of these areas had very small exurban populations to begin with," Gardner and Marlay note in a commentary on their analysis.

But it wasn't all just pre-crash exurban booming. Some metro areas continued to see their exurban populations grow between 2007 and 2010, after the crash and through the recession. From 2007 to 2010, metropolitan areas grew about 2.4 percent, while exurban areas grew by 13 percent. Some exurbs even out-performed their pre-recession selves. "In 22 of the largest 100 metros, the average annual growth rate in the exurbs from 2007 to 2010 was higher than that of the previous seven years," the researchers write.

For this analysis, exurban areas are determined by housing unit density, the age of the housing stock, and commuting links to neighboring economic centers.

Exurban growth rates between 2000 and 2010. Source: The Urban Institute

These findings paint a bit of a different picture than the results of another recent analysis of urban and suburban populations by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, which we also reported on. That analysis of Census data and estimates from 2010 and 2011 found that the central cities in the largest metropolitan areas in the country experienced, on average, slightly higher growth rates than their surrounding suburban areas. According to Frey's analysis of the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people, the primary cities in those metros grew an average of 1.1 percent, compared with 0.9 percent growth in the suburban areas of those metros between July 2010 and July 2011.

The timeframe of these two analyses is different, as is the geographical granularity. Frey's analysis looks at counties, while Gardner and Marlay's looks at census tracts.

Though there's no comparison between exurbs and cities in this analysis, Gardner and Marlay offer a fresh look at where populations are changing and exactly how growth is occurring in the U.S.

Top image: A sign for some of the new homes that have filled in the desert outside Las Vegas in this photo from 2008. Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters

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