For many mayors across the country, including New York City’s Michael Bloomberg, the recently announced results of the 2010 census were a downer. In a host of cities, the population turned out to be substantially lower than the U.S. Census Bureau had estimated for 2010—in New York’s case, by some 250,000 people. Bloomberg immediately called the decade’s meager 2.1 percent growth, less than one-quarter the national average, an “undercount.” Senator Charles Schumer blamed extraterrestrials, accusing the Census Bureau of “living on another planet.” The truth, though, is that the census is very much of this world. It just isn’t the world that mayors, the media, and most urban planners want to see.
Start with the fact that America continues to suburbanize. The country’s metropolitan areas have two major components: core cities (New York City, for example) and suburbs (such as Westchester County, Long Island, northern New Jersey, and even Pike County in Pennsylvania). During the 2000s, the census shows, just 8.6 percent of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than a million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs. That 8.6 percent represents a decline from the 1990s, when the figure was 15.4 percent. The New York metropolitan area was no outlier: though it did better than the national average, with 29 percent of its growth taking place within New York City, that’s still a lot lower than the 46 percent that the region saw in the 1990s.
This may be shocking to some. For years, academics, the media, and big-city developers have been suggesting that suburbs were dying and that people were flocking back to the cities that they had fled in the 1970s. The Obama administration has taken this as gospel. “We’ve reached the limits of suburban development,” Housing and Urban Development secretary Shaun Donovan opined in 2010. “People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities.” Yet of the 51 metropolitan areas that have more than 1 million residents, only three—Boston, Providence, and Oklahoma City—saw their core cities grow faster than their suburbs. (And both Boston and Providence grew slowly; their suburbs just grew more slowly. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, built suburban residences on the plentiful undeveloped land within city limits.)
All this suburbanization means that the best unit for comparison may be, not the core city, but the metropolitan area; and the census shows clearly which metropolitan areas are growing and which are not. The top ten population gainers—growing by 20 percent, twice the national average or more—are the metropolitan areas surrounding Las Vegas, Raleigh, Austin, Charlotte, Riverside–San Bernardino, Orlando, Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, and Atlanta. These areas are largely suburban. None developed the large, dense core cities that dominated America before the post–World War II suburban boom began. By contrast, many of the metropolitan areas that grew at rates half the national average or less—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, New York—have core areas that are the old, dense variety. Planners and pundits may like density, but people, for the most part, continue to prefer more space.
If you do look at cities themselves, rather than at larger metropolitan areas, you’ll see that the census reveals three different categories. The most robust cities, with population growth over 15 percent for the decade—Raleigh, Austin, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Jacksonville, and Orlando—were located within the kind of metropolitan area that urbanists tend to dislike: highly suburbanized, dominated by single-family homes, and with few people using public transit. That’s partly because these cities developed along largely suburban lines by annexing undeveloped land and low-density areas. This has been the case in virtually all the fastest-growing cities. Raleigh has expanded its boundaries to become 12 times larger than it was in 1950; Charlotte and Orlando are nine times larger, and Jacksonville an astounding 25 times larger.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are core cities, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast and often land-constrained, that have continued to shrink. These include longtime disaster zones like Detroit and Cleveland as well as newer ones like Birmingham in the South. They include Pittsburgh, a city much praised for its livability but one that is aging rapidly and whose city government, based disproportionately on revenue from universities and nonprofits, is among the nation’s most fiscally strapped. They even include Chicago, which lost some 200,000 people during the 2000s, its population falling to the lowest level since the 1910 census. The reasons aren’t hard to identify: despite all the hype about Chicago’s recovery and the legacy of Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Windy City is among the most fiscally weak urban areas in the country, its schools are in terrible shape, and its economy is struggling.
Finally, there are cities that have grown, but not quickly. New York City’s population, for example, inched to a record high in the 2000s, but that growth was less than the national average. The population of Los Angeles grew a mere 97,000—the smallest increase since the 1890s. Many of the slow-growing cities (New York, San Francisco, and Boston, for example) suffer from high housing costs, which inhibit population growth. But they also host high-end industries—finance, technology, and business services—and enough well-paid workers in these industries to afford pricey housing and sustain a small rate of growth. The cities also attract already wealthy people from elsewhere.
The census provides information on a smaller level, too, telling us not just which cities have grown, but where the growth has taken place within cities. Often, it has been in and around the historic downtowns. This is a trend in many cities that otherwise differ starkly (New York, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles), and it reflects a subtle shift in the role of the downtown. Rather than reasserting themselves as dominant job centers, downtowns are becoming residential and cultural—a change that H. G. Wells predicted when he wrote that by 2000, the center of London would be “essentially a bazaar, a great gallery of shops and places of concourse and rendezvous.” What may have been an office, industrial, or retail zone morphs into a gentrified locale attractive to the migratory global rich, to affluent young people, and to childless households.
This downtown recovery (which many cities subsidized heavily) was partly why so many urbanists and developers identified a broader back-to-the-city movement; but in reality, the phenomenon was usually limited to a relatively small population and a relatively small area. Since 1950, for example, St. Louis has lost a greater share of its population than any American city ever boasting 500,000 or more residents. The area from downtown to Central West End experienced strong growth during the 2000s, however, adding more people than Portland’s Pearl District, a favorite of urban planners. Yet this gain of 7,000 people was far from enough to offset the loss of 36,000 in the rest of St. Louis.
It’s also worth noting that in economic terms, downtowns are losing their hold. For example, though the residential population of Chicago’s Loop tripled to 20,000 in the past decade, that famed business district lost almost 65,000 jobs; its share of the metropolitan area’s employment also fell. Los Angeles’s downtown, whose population has likewise grown, lost roughly 200,000 jobs from 1995 to 2005. Manhattan is losing employment share to the other four boroughs, as it has been for decades; but as a recent report from the Center for an Urban Future reveals, the process accelerated over the last ten years. From 2000 to 2009, Manhattan lost a net 41,833 jobs, while other boroughs saw net increases. This employment dispersion is even more evident in the suburbs. Of commuters who live in the inner-ring suburbs (such as Yonkers and East Orange), 60 percent work in their home counties and only 14 percent in Manhattan. Of commuters from such outer-ring suburbs as Haverstraw and Morristown, 73 percent work in their home counties and 6 percent in Manhattan.
What, in the end, does the census tell us about America’s cities today? Certainly not that they’re dying, as they threatened to do in the 1950s, but equally certainly that they aren’t roaring back. Cities remain a successful niche product for a relatively small percentage of the population. Most people, though, even in the New York metropolitan area, continue to move toward the periphery rather than the core. That said, New York’s continuing growth over the past decade suggests that its recovery will likely prove durable. As for Senator Schumer’s “another planet” allegations, the census is simply confirming the fact that terrestrial Americans continue to disperse, both within and among metropolitan areas. So far, there’s little that planners, policy makers, and urban boosters can do about that.