Exurban development continues to decline, while cities return to pre-recession growth

By Eric Sundquist 

Growth in urban-fringe suburbs, once the fastest-growing parts of metropolitan areas, has stalled, new Census data shows.

From 1990 through the mid-2000s, growth in exurban counties was running at about 2 percent per year, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. But after peaking in 2006, that growth has steadily declined, to 0.4 percent in 2010-2011.

Central cities and inner suburbs have long lagged the growth rate of fringe counties, but now they are growing faster.

“The fact that outer suburban growth has continued to falter two years after the recession ended calls into question whether today’s younger generations will hold the same residential preferences as their forebears,” reports Brookings demographer William Frey.

“It is possible that the new financial risks they face, along with increased environmental and economic concerns, will change perceptions of where to find their version of the American Dream.”

Yale University economist Robert J. Shiller told the Associated Press that America is at a turning point, shifting away from faraway suburbs.

“Suburban housing prices may not recover in our lifetime,” Shiller said.

Shiller said the rapid growth of suburbia from the 1950s to the mid-2000s was an unusual historic pattern, driven by the nation’s huge and sudden investment in new highways.

“With the bursting of the bubble,” he told the news service, “we may be discovering the pleasures of the city and the advantages of renting, investing our money not in a single house but in a diversified portfolio.”

The transportation implications of the exurban slowdown are significant, implying new challenges of moving people and goods in densifying areas, and less pressure to chase (and induce) growth in the exurbs.

Recent analysis by SSTI has shown a strong correlation between recent VMT decreases and urban density increases. The new Census data suggest an acceleration in urban density, which may lead to further reductions in VMT.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director at SSTI. He can be reached at Erics@ssti.us.