There is an acrimonious debate between urbanists and anti-urbanists. Some analysts say emphatically that the suburbs are unpopular and that people are fleeing them for the dense city core of metropolitan areas. Others say the opposite. But based on population trends, it seems that neither side is the clear winner.
In the average metropolitan area over the last 10 years, the central city has held a roughly constant proportion of its population: 24.5% in 2010 and 24.3% in 2019. There may have been a slight decline in the early 2000s, but that has leveled off in the 2010s.
All told, neither cities nor suburbs came out ahead. Instead, they both grow together.
Some cities are doing better than others, with their region growing at a similar rate. The Austin, Texas, area had the fastest growing population over this period, increasing by 76.1% from 2000 to 2019. That included a 44.9% increase in the city’s population and a more than doubling of its suburban population. New Orleans, still smarting from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, lost the most of any large metropolitan area. The Cleveland metro lost the second most, with a 19.9% decline in its city and a 0.3% decrease in its suburbs.
The following chart shows the growth of cities and their suburbs. Each dot represents a metropolitan area, so Austin’s record of 44.9% city growth and a doubling of the suburban population makes it the dot on the far right. (And perhaps this is the only time anyone has characterized Austin as being on the far right.) The dots indicate a trend that moves up and to the right, meaning that growing regions have gains in both the central city and its suburbs. It covers the largest 51 metropolitan areas. (I only include 51 because Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city, has the 51st largest metropolitan area in the country.)
Detroit is a small exception here. The city proper lost 29.2% of its population over the period while the suburbs grew by 4%. Even though one grew and the other did not, both lagged the average growth for cities and suburbs. Its city growth was the worst among the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas, and its suburban growth was 6th-worst. So it still fits the trend: The places that do well have both growing cities and growing suburbs.
Perhaps both cities and suburbs offer things that people want. The places that are doing the best grow both their cities and their suburbs. The bigger question for policymakers is about how to best grow the economy for both rather than whether central cities or suburbs will grow more than the other.
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