“Census Breaks the News We Already Knew: The Exurbs Are History
Tanya Snyder. April 9, 2012
Last week, the New York Times and USA Today reported that Census numbers had confirmed the death of the outer ring suburbs, or exurbs. The latest numbers, capturing the year (actually 15 months, April 2010 to July 2011) since the last Census, showed a major shift away from the settlement patterns from 2000 to 2010.
That’s not exactly how it happened. The shift didn’t suddenly happen in 2010. The 2000-2010 numbers encompass a decade whose first two-thirds were the heyday of an economic boom that buoyed greenfield development. The real break was in 2007, when the housing bubble burst and the artificially inflated value of the outer suburbs crashed. After all, those houses weren’t near any employment centers or amenities, and the price of gas was creeping terrifyingly upward, forcing exurbanites to pay top dollar to get to work, if they still had a job to go to.
The whole last third of the decade showed a populace flinching back from what was quickly proving itself to be a toxic development pattern. Last year’s numbers are a continuation of what’s been happening since 2007, not a sudden year-over-year change.
What has emerged from the analysis of this year’s Census data, though, is a complicated picture of stalled-out growth in distant suburbs that had developed at a breakneck pace during the housing boom, fueled by overzealous marketing and easy mortgages. Cities have re-absorbed some of those people, but the biggest metros chalked up only modest population increases. And the cities that grew the most were relatively sprawling southern and western cities, like Dallas and Miami, that defy the urbanism of old eastern cities like Boston or Philadelphia.
Fleeing the Exurbs
The Census Bureau itself didn’t actually say anything about exurbs. It focused on the dramatic shift in development patterns over the last decade, highlighting in its press release that the fastest growing areas between 2000 and 2010 were not the same ones that grew the fastest from 2010 to 2011.
So where are the Times and USA Today getting this “exurbs are dying” thing? They’re getting it from William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. He’s been talking about the flagging energy for exurban growth for years, most recently in a report released two weeks ago on the population shift away from outer suburbs and toward metros with diversified, knowledge-based economies.”
Image: William Frey, Brookings Institution