Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we stay away from all the noise and dust.
— A letter written in cuneiform on a clay tablet in 539 BCE from an early suburbanite to the king of Persia
To hear some city boosters tell it, the 2,500-year-long march to the suburbs — propelled by the quest for cleaner air and more space — has suddenly shifted into reverse. Cities, particularly large U.S. cities, are gaining in population.
The Census Bureau validates that perception. Data out Friday show that from 2010 to 2013, large American cities, particularly those in the Sunbelt, have been showing dramatic spurts in growth: Austin, Texas, is up 9.2 percent; San Antonio 6.1 percent, Phoenix 4.5 percent. Even the Rust Belt’s Indianapolis grew, by about 2.8 percent.
The Twin Cities have been holding their own: Preliminary estimates from the Metropolitan Council (and I emphasize they are estimates that could change) have Minneapolis growing by 4.8 percent over the same period and St. Paul by 4 percent.
You may find these numbers stunning. Sure, there seems to be a building boom in both downtowns. But does that mean that droves of folks are abandoning their three- and four-bedroom suburban havens for 1,200-square-foot city apartments?
Maybe they will — someday, but not yet. The Twin Cities suburbs have grown over the same period as well, by about 3.4 percent — not as much as the cities, but a respectable amount. Whether this all portends suburban stagnation or shrinkage is hard to say. Todd Graham, the Met Council’s principal forecaster, cautions that three data points do not necessarily a trend make. “Every year about 100,000 people move in and 100,000 move out, leaving a slightly positive net of a few thousand,” he says.
Who will be where?
Who is going where may also be a little more complicated.
According to a study by the Martin Prosperity Institute in Toronto (that’s the outfit headed by Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class”), two kinds of urban migration are occurring. One is the flow of Americans themselves, some of whom have decided to settle in large cities. The second is the continuing surge of new immigrants coming from outside the United States.
Large cities, where newcomers can incubate and stick with countrymen speaking the same language, have always drawn internationals. The biggest boosts occurred in the biggest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, Miami and Washington, D.C., for example. But the Twin Cities metro, a gateway for international immigrants for the past 20 years, also saw an influx of between 10,000 and 20,000 arrivals from other countries just in the last year.
Interestingly, however, about a third of large metros saw flocks of their native-born residents move away. Expensive cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago suffered the largest outflows along with struggling Midwestern towns like Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee. A couple of cities even wound up with net population losses.
But, again, the Twin Cities metro managed to attract as many as 10,000 domestic migrants. “Domestic migration is a little more fickle than international migration,” says Graham. “It generally correlates with the economy and employment opportunities.” The more job openings, especially for high-paying jobs, the higher domestic migration. The unemployment rate here is only 4.9 percent compared with 6.3 percent nationwide.
Young and restless?
Who are those domestic movers? “The people with the highest mobility rates are in their 20s,” says Graham. Older people, particularly two-income families with kids and mortgages, tend to stay put.
Young migrants — the millennial generation — have not been moving as much as previously, however. According to William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, only about 20.5 percent of adults aged 25 to 34 moved anywhere (even across the street) in the past few years; a scant 7 percent made longer-distance moves. Until the Great Recession, that rate ranged from 8 percent to 10 percent annually. The influx in some cities, however, was not even as large as it was during the depths of the recession, making one wonder whether millennials are simply hunkering down at their parents’ houses where they can get three hots and a cot — plus cable TV.
But, says Frey, “A few other areas, including San Francisco and Minneapolis, have shown a rising post-recession young adult boom as well.” We probably have the local universities to thank for that.
A critical mass
Another group of movers are seniors. Although it often seems as though they’re relocating en masse to Florida or Arizona, in truth, only a small dribble of the elderly ever relocate in retirement. That dribble almost came to a complete halt during the recession because many seniors couldn’t sell their houses. Now that the economy has picked up, however, some are heading off to traditional retirement havens as well as new meccas. (Example The Villages in Florida, a master-planned community for people over age 55, with 53,000 residents is one of the fastest growing small cities in America.)
Still, “the majority of older people stay in their own community,” says Graham. “Most don’t want to move more than 10 miles from where they’ve been living.” And, they want housing that’s convenient to shopping, churches and health care as well as the low- or no-maintenance style available in condos or apartments. That may mean downtown in one of the two big cities or in a suburban center. It may seem as though they are overwhelming every geographic area, but that’s probably because there are so many of them. The now aging baby boomer cohort, as you may recall, is about 77 million strong.
Too soon to tell
So any resurgence in the population of cities is due primarily to a small but steady inflow of international immigrants, young adults and seniors moving in from the suburbs. But, it’s not clear that the last three year’s trends will grow or even continue.
You could speculate that millennials will ultimately spawn children and want to move to single-family housing in the suburbs. They may be accompanied by rising immigrant families seeking better schools and big backyards. If the cities want to keep them, they may have to provide some updated single-family housing within their borders.
And, to accommodate those burgeoning mobs of seniors, cities — and housing developers — may have to think more about not just rental apartments but condos as well, since older people on fixed incomes prefer the predictable costs of ownership.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of baby boomers living in the United States, which is about 77 million.