Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Back to the City

Update: The NYT just ran an interesting story called “In Shift, More People Move In to New York Than Out” that provides further info on this trend using recent Census data.

My latest post is online over at New Geography. It is called “Back to the City?” and examines the question of whether in fact there has been a movement back to the city. Census figures suggest that while many downtowns flourished, albeit often showing large percentage gains on a small base, cities generally underperformed in the 2000s vs. the 1990s.

In this piece I look at intra-metro migration to measure people moving from the city to the suburbs and vice versa. Because data is only available at the county level, I selected four cities where counties offered a good proxy for the urban core: New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

As you can see from the chart above, there has been a shift in trends in the 2000s, with out-migration falling off late in the decade, while in-migration remained steady or even increased. The most striking trend was in Philadelphia, as shown above. That chart shows the migration values plotted as a index to render them in the same scale. There is still a net out-migration to the suburbs, but the gap has narrowed in these places. Here we see that on the chart with raw numbers:

Obviously with the late decade featuring a steep recession and housing bust, migration has been affected. It remains to be seen what will happen in the future. But these numbers do clearly show improvements for core cities in the underlying migration trends.

Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington

14 Responses to “Back to the City”

  1. DBR96A says:

    I think it was about five years ago that people finally decided that Pennsylvania’s major cities don’t deserve to die. Unfortunately, it’s gonna take longer than five years to undo the damage done to each city’s brand equity between 1960 and 2000. You gotta start somewhere, though.

  2. alki says:

    In Seattle, which has been growing for at least two decades, we now are experiencing a baby boom. Schools that were closed just 6 years ago are having to be reopened. The back to the city movement is happening albeit slowly.

  3. stlplanr says:

    What about Baltimore and St. Louis? Each of those central cities, since independent cities, match up perfectly for county data.

    And what about the mix of intra- and inter-metro migration? Many cores seem to be attracting just as many new inter-metro migrants as their outer-suburban counties; the cores are just simultaneously still losing existing residents to the first-ring suburban counties. Meanwhile, inner-ring counties are largely the pass-through places for intra-metro migration. For example, inner-ring St. Louis County (separate from independent St. Louis City) had the most core-to-suburb in-migration, as well as suburb-to-exurb out-migration.

    And finally, what about some normalization for income and household size? The cores seem to be attracting smaller and more affluent households in replacement for those lost to the suburbs.

  4. Good questions.

    St. Louis and Baltimore I don’t have the data readily available for. That’s because when I ran my data processing, I defined their core as city+county in order to make them comparable with other similar sized cities. (I esp. wanted to be able to compare St. Louis on a like for like basis to places like Indy and Cincinnati). I’d have had to have done a lot of recalcing to get that, and so I elected to take a pass.

    I do have the data in my Telestrian system for average household size and household income in terms of these moves, as well as MSA-MSA and MSA-state moves. I just didn’t use it for this piece.

  5. alki says:

    Mr. Renn, are you really trying to analyze whether there is an urban renaissance in the US, or are you simply playing into the nonsensical rhetoric of the Mr. Coxes? In one of your articles, you quickly gloss over the positive gains made by Indianapolis, Columbus and OK City as if their growth came through ill gotten means. You focus on cities like Dallas which are about as urbane and progressive as dried toast.

    In the meantime, everyone from Mr. Cox to Mr. Kotkins to you seems to ignore what’s happening in DC and the predictions that the District may become majority white again for the first time in decades and that more whites are moving into Atlanta than leaving it, another reversal that suggests cities are becoming more popular at least among the white population.

    In Seattle, I pointed out in an earlier post here that schools shuttered just 6 years ago are having to be re opened to accommodate a growth in the number of kids entering the public school system……and that’s not due solely to the recession but mostly to a genuine baby boom in the city. Raising your kids in the city is becoming more acceptable in places like Seattle and Portland, a reversal of a trend that has been in place at least since WW II.

    As for the population misses you talk about and the complaints that the gov’t census figures were off…….well its pretty common knowledge that natural population growth fell off a cliff for nearly 3 years during the recession. That’s the most likely explanation for the population shortfalls in 2010. And who the hell cares if a city gains 10,000 new people, or 50,000? A gain is a gain.

    What I do know is that cities like Seattle, Portland and Columbus which have been doing the right things for decades are now starting to reap what they sowed. They are experiencing near boom conditions. Columbus has new housing popping up everywhere within the city limits. Whole new neighborhoods are getting built in Portland. More housing and mixed use development are getting built inside Seattle than outside the city. Its becoming more and more a status symbol to live in Seattle than in its suburbs.

    Now we are seeing cities as divergent as Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Akron implement some of the same grassroot development efforts that were started in the Seattles two decades ago. Actually, Pittsburgh is closer to being a Seattle than a Buffalo. Meanwhile, the progress in Buffalo is exciting to watch………..and what is happening in Detroit is nothing short of a miracle.

    Its not clear if that will be enough to ‘turn’ American cities……but the prognosis is much better than it was 20 years ago. I just wished that the most vocal of urbanists would be more objective in their presentations instead of focusing on the negatives ad nauseum.

  6. alki, I’m not sure what you are talking about. I actually highlighted DC as one of my case studies for improved migration trends in this very article. Clearly it’s a city on the upswing, though having the federal government there certainly helps.

  7. Matthew Hall says:

    Columbus if far from a boom, but is has some good examples of new housing. It isn’t in the same league as seattle or portland in this respect.

  8. Kieran S says:

    In this piece I look at intra-metro migration to measure people moving from the city to the suburbs and vice versa.

    What about INTER-metro migration between cores and suburbs? If I understand your post correctly, you’re not counting people who move from, say, New York City to the suburbs of Houston. But that’s core-to-suburb migration just as moving from NYC to the New York suburbs is core-to-suburb migration. If the goal is to find out whether there really might be the beginnings of a “back to the city” movement (that is, a slowing of long-standing trend of migration to suburbs), then you have to include inter-metro migration as well as intra-metro migration.

  9. alki says:

    @Urbanophile…The manner in which you included DC in your article suggests that it supports your premise that the back to the city movement is mostly a charade. However, the facts suggest otherwise. For the first time since 1950, the District saw an increase in its population……and as I indicated earlier, a decades long trend of blacks making up a greater and greater percentage of the city reversed itself. And DC was not the only American city to start growing again after decades of decline.

    @Matthew Hall. I wasn’t suggesting that Columbus was booming. However, I do believe it is doing better than many cities. BTW in the last decade the population of Columbus grew 10%; Seattle 8%.

  10. alki, I do think there have been improvements in central city population trends. I just think it has been vastly overblown by people ready to proclaim the death of the suburbs (not that I’m saying you personally do this). The turnaround in the District is remarkable. But still that was only 3.8% of total regional population growth. 96.2% of population growth was still in the suburbs. That’s better than in previous decades to be sure, and it isn’t realistic to expect a built out area to capture three quarters of a million new people. But we haven’t seen a radical shift. More like a modest improvement that is hopefully an inflection point for the city.

  11. Kieran S says:


    You’re not looking at DC in context. Yes, its population grew between 2000 and 2010. But that growth was tiny compared to the population growth in the surrounding suburbs. The suburbs grew much more than DC both in percentage terms and in the absolute number of new residents. Prince William County alone added four times as many new residents as the District. So the result was that DC’s share of the total metro area population was even smaller in 2010 than it was in 2000.

  12. alki says:

    U and Kieran:

    First of all, I did not in any way suggest American cities are about to experience population growth comparable to rates found in some suburbs. How can they? Most cities have few greenfields on which to build and population growth prompted by density buildup is a very slow process. Conversely, I never suggested that the suburbs are dead.

    However, what I am saying is that American cities are starting to grow again after decades of decline. And while some urbanists may have exaggerated the strength of the revival that does not change the fact that the revival is underway nor take away from the significance of the trend change.

    Its an exciting time to be an American city.

  13. Kieran S says:

    You cited Washington DC and possibly a handful of other cities that started to grow again after decades of decline. There are 275 cities in the U.S. with over 100,000 people, and hundreds more smaller cities. A handful out of hundreds is not a trend. A short-term change is not a trend.

    Moreover, you have look at the causes of population changes to determine their meaning and significance. New York City’s population grew over the past decade, but not because Americans found it a more attractive place to live. In fact, the city has suffered a net loss of a million domestic migrants since 2000. A million more people moved out of NYC for other parts of the country (including the New York suburbs) than moved into NYC from other parts of the country. That suggests it’s still losing popularity among Americans as a place to live. The reason NYC’s population grew despite the massive loss of domestic migrants is immigration and natural increase. It’s a magnet for immigrants because it has a large existing immigrant community and lots of jobs and public services geared towards newly-arriving immigrants. This also seems to be true for other large cities. To the extent that their decline has slowed in recent decades, it seems to be attributable largely to an increase in the immigration rate, not to any revival in demand for density or urban living among people already living here.

  14. alki says:

    First of all, I misspoke…….there are more than a handful of cities that have started growing again after decades of decline……..add Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Utica and Binghamton, NY to the list; the 5 major cities of CT…including Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport; Philadephia; Washington DC; Porttland, ME. And there are other cities like Milwaukee that are flatlining after decades of losses. Then are cities like NYC, Kansas City, MO and Denver, CO which started growing again in the 90s and built on that growth in 2000s.

    Then there are cities like Seattle, Allentown PA and SF that are seeing their populations reach new highs after declining in previous decades. The vast majority of these cities do not have greenfields on which to build…….that means that a good portion of their population growth is coming from densification.

    NY and LA are gateway cities……so its not surprising that a lot of their growth comes from international immigration. But that’s not true for most of the cities I cite above. Their population decline and subsequent reversal is happening because city living is appealing to more and more people. Its why Seattle is having a baby boom, and DC and Atlanta are seeing more and more white folks moving in. Does that mean that the vast majority of future growth will be in the cities? Not likely. Most cities don’t have vacant land on which to build. However, it does mean that movement from city to suburbs is no longer a one way street.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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