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WASHINGTON — During the housing bubble, Americans moved in droves to the exurbs, to newly paved subdivisions on what was once rural land. Far-out suburbs had some of the fastest population growth in the country in the early 2000s, fueled by cheap housing and easy mortgages. And these places helped redefine how we think about metropolitan areas, pushing their edges farther and farther from the traditional downtown.
In the wake of the housing crash, these same places took the biggest hit. Population growth in the exurbs stalled. They produced a new American phenomenon: the ghost subdivision of developments abandoned during the housing collapse before anyone got around to finishing the roads or sidewalks.
These scenes and demographic trends left the impression that maybe Americans had changed their minds about exurban living. New Census data, though, suggests that eight years after the housing crash, Americans are starting to move back there again.
The fledgling trend, captured in data through 2014, raises questions about whether American preferences for where and how to live truly changed much during the housing bust, or if we simply put our exurban aspirations on hold. At the same time, the shift calls into question a parallel and popular narrative: that Americans who once preferred the suburbs would now rather move into the city.
Demographic data over the last three years have tentatively supported this argument, with implications for the type of housing Americans want (smaller homes over large McMansions), the type of communities they prefer ("walkable" over car-dependent ones), and where developers should plan to build. The evidence: From 2011 until 2013, dense counties at the center of large metropolitan areas in the U.S. saw faster population growth than the exurbs, a fact cheered by city-lovers as a sign that urban living was on the rise again.
The updated census county population estimates released Thursday, though, show that the exurbs are now again growing faster than more urban places, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.
That picture doesn't mean that more Americans now live in exurbs than what Frey calls the "urban core," nor that cities are even shrinking. It means, rather, that the most urban counties are now growing more slowly than counties containing the far-out suburbs.
"It's not going to be reverting back to the early part of 2000s when we had this maniac exurban and suburban growth," Frey predicts. But it does appear now that the last three years were atypical.
Demographers have been waiting for new data about migration patterns and population growth because our understanding of what Americans want for the last several years has been clouded by the weak economy. Did far-flung suburbs stop growing because fewer families wanted to live there, or because fewer families had the means to move (and fewer builders the demand to build)? Likewise, have people been staying in cities because they want to be there, or because they haven't been able to leave?
Frey is still cautious about what these trends mean in the long run, in part because Americans are still moving at much lower rates than usual. During down times in the economy, we're more likely to stay put wherever we are because we're not moving for new jobs, or to buy new homes, or because many of us are putting off major life transitions like having a family or moving out on our own. This picture of where Americans want to move is also partly complicated by policies that make it easier for developers to build new housing in the exurbs than in the heart of dense cities.
Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.