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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

A City Revival? It Depends on Your Definitions

Every spring, the Census Bureau publishes estimates of the population as of the prior July 1st at the sub-county level (i.e., individual municipalities, incorporated places, and non-incorporated county balances). Recent releases of these estimates suggest that cities have been expanding faster than their suburbs, with annual average population growth of 0.91 percent in 2010-2014 in the former, versus 0.77 percent average annual growth in the latter (Figure 1). Non-metropolitan areas, meanwhile, have recently seen their populations decline, by an average of more than 0.25 percent annually over the last four years.

Notes: Metropolitan areas and principal cities are defined as of 2013 by the Office of Management and Budget ( Suburbs are all parts of a metro area not designated as a principal city.  Source: JCHS tabulations of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Vintage 2014 Postcensal Population Estimates.

This recent trend of city populations growing faster than those of suburbs is a dramatic departure from prior decades, when suburban population growth significantly outpaced that of cities. Indeed, analyses by the Brookings Institution, using slightly different data and definitions of cities and suburbs but reaching the same general conclusions, suggest that between 2000 and 2010 the suburbs of large metropolitan areas grew by 1.38 percent per year, while the primary cities of large metro areas expanded by only 0.42 percent annually.

Some commentators herald this trend as a long-awaited sign of a grand urban revival, attributable to the combination of recent market events and long-running demographic trends. They posit that cities are becoming more popular in the wake of the late-2000s recession and downturn in housing markets, which exposed many of the downsides to suburban living. Either unable or unwilling to purchase homes in suburbs, the argument goes, more households are opting instead to live in urban neighborhoods with their mix of affordable housing options and lifestyle amenities. At the same time, some subsets of the population that are traditionally more likely to live in cities, including young adults, minorities, and childless households, have been increasing as a share of all households. Even if all households continued to live in cities and suburbs at the same rates as in the past, these demographic shifts alone would elevate the populations of cities more than those of suburbs.

Not everyone agrees with the urban revival hypothesis, however. Researcherspoint out that the suburbs are still home to about half of the U.S. population, and remain the location of choice for most households, including young families and retirees. Proponents of this position further argue that the cities that are growing the most do not resemble the dense cores that urbanists favor, but are instead places with lower densities and auto-centric commuting patterns more akin to close-in suburbs.

The disparity in these viewpoints exists in part because of the way that most analysts define cities and suburbs. Figure 1 above, for example, uses the federal Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) classification of metropolitan areas and principal cities, and assumes that a principal city is effectively the ‘urban’ portion of the metro area, with the balance comprised only of ‘suburban’ places. This delineation, however, leaves no room for judgments about individual communities that blur the lines between urban and suburban areas. Some principal cities are themselves former suburbs that changed their status by making themselves more appealing to certain residents and/or by attracting a particularly large employer or industry, but that nonetheless retain many of their former suburban characteristics, such as neighborhoods with mostly single-family housing. Some suburbs, meanwhile, have developed dense centers with walkable amenities akin to cities, giving residents a taste of urban lifestyles in their small communities. The definitions used by OMB, however, group such places together with low-density bedroom communities under the broad umbrella category of suburbs. Indeed, even within a particular municipality there can be neighborhoods that have a more urban or suburban feel to them, so that classifying the entire municipality as either a city or suburb ignores the diversity that attracts residents to it in the first place.

An alternative to the dichotomous definitions of city and suburb is to categorize places on one or more spectrums that take into account the different features of each type of community most significant to residents. These features can include everything from population density to type of housing stock, transportation usage, presence of retail establishments and cultural amenities, and walkability. Some researchers have already developed different classification schemes that take such characteristics into account, using density and commuting statistics to identify cities that are more or less urban in their character, or considering the degree of urbanization of suburban counties outside of large cities. Yet even these approaches still rely on assigned administrative boundaries of cities, counties, and metro areas that ignore the variations within them. A better option for those studying population shifts would thus be to see past political geography in favor of descriptive categories that better capture the diverse qualities sought by people as they choose where to live; researchers should define a spectrum of community types that represent this diversity. Such classifications will not only allow for richer analyses, but will better reflect the reality of where Americans live – not in cities or suburbs, but places that offer the best combinations of amenities to meet the needs of modern households.