The Myth That Cities Aren't Growing As Fast As Suburbs

Of course suburbs grow more than central cities. They encompass vastly more land mass.
By Richard Layman | Dec 20, 2018 |
By Richard Layman | Dec 20, 2018 |
A shot of Dallas’ suburbs and city skyline / Wikimedia

The other day, the New York Times ran a story, “Return to Cities an Urban Legend, Mostly,” making the point that despite all the talk of population growth in the cities, more people are moving to and more growth is happening “in the suburbs.”

I think this story misses very important points, a kind of “burying the lede.”

Suburbs make up a much greater proportion of a metropolitan area’s land mass and population
.  It should be obvious that as metropolitan areas continue to grow, more people live in suburbs. It should be clear why this is so. Compared to the entire land mass and population of a metropolitan area, the formal center city, such as Washington, Baltimore, Boston, New York City, etc., is but a small proportion of a metropolitan area’s total population and land mass.

For example, the DC metropolitan area has a population of about 6 million.  Less than 15% of this population is located in DC. DC comprises about 1.5% of the total land area of the metropolitan area (less when you take into account how much of the land is controlled by the federal government and not subject to development). Given these facts, it’s unlikely that the city could capture a majority of population and economic growth.

New York City is part of a three-state metropolitan area greater than 13,000 square miles. The total population of the metro is slightly more than 20 million. New York City has about 8.5 million residents, in an area a cotch larger than 300 square miles.

What is significant first is that center cities are dense, with a large population in a small area. DC is about 60 square miles and has about 680,000 residents. The suburbs Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland are each about 400 square miles in size, and each has about 1.1 million residents. Each is about 6.5x larger than DC physically, with less than twice the population.

What is significant second, is rather than a story of center city shrinkage–which was the case from the 1950s to around 2000–there is a renewed interest in living and working in center cities, and center cities are capturing more residents and more business than they had previously. Since roughly 2000, there has been a change in demand for urban living.  It’s marginal, but significant enough to demonstrate significant “relative” levels of population in-migration, new construction especially of multiunit housing, etc.

Much of this in-migration has been centered upon downtowns or the “central business district,” which has shifted from a unidimensional office canyon active only in the daytime to a mixed use district including a significant proportion of multiunit housing and night-time districts supported in large part by residents.

Downtown Living, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2002
Who Lives Downtown, Brookings Institution, 2005

[This article was originally published by Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space]