End of Urban Exodus? Don’t Bet on it.

It seems that if the Los Angeles Times is to be believed, urban populations are rising at the expense of suburbs which are not losing population, but are only experiencing slower growth than they did in the past decade. See Don Lee, U.S. Cities Growing Faster than Suburbs, L.A. Times, June 28, 2012. But even if you are a “new urbanist,” don’t pop the champagne cork just yes. The growth reported in this dispatch represents only one year, and as we know, one swallow does not summer make, nor one year a trend.

Moreover, the reported urban growth is uneven. New York, Boston and Philadelphia saw increased population growth as compared to last year. But these are cherry-picked examples. New Yotk is unique because its most desirable part is an island whose inhabitants have been disproportionately employed in the well paying finance industry. Boston is a big time college town, which tends to attract people. On the other hand, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis continue losing population.

We claim no particular expertise in urban demographics, but based on several years’ worth of observation, the past boom in the suburbs was fueled, among other things, by the perception of the past several decades that buying a suburban home was a sure-fire path to wealth (or at least to increased net worth). So once the bubble popped and the financial escalator stopped, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that more people would refrain from buying suburban homes (which aren’t being built in large numbers anyway), at least temporarily. And since they have to live some place, an increase in urban renters would seem like a natural consequence of these events. Besides, the new urban dwellers are largely young people, so it is at the very least an open question whether they will stay put in cities, or move out to the suburbs when they marry and have children (not necessarily in that order these days).

What we don’t see discussed in all this chit-chat is schools. The choice of a public school is the largest single factor in a family’s decision on where to live. And urban schools too often remain unsafe and of poor educational quality. But we don’t hear much about that, or how to improve them, from the “new urbanists.”

So once again, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens when (a) the housing market improves, and (b) the young folks attracted to cities by the comparatively cheap rents, marry and procreate.

Stay tuned, and take another look at this situation in a few years because comparing the statistics for one year (2010-2011) with a decade-long record does not strike us as a good idea. Extrapolation is tricky, especially as a long-term predictive tool.

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