For the last few years, counties at the center of their metropolitan areas have been growing faster than those at the edge. But late last month, the Washington Post‘s Emily Badger – citing analysis by demographer William Frey at the Brookings Institution – reported that the Census’ latest population estimates show that in 2014, the country returned to its pre-recession norm of faster growth in the exurbs.

This reversal, Badger and Frey argue, sheds some light on Americans’ housing preferences. In particular, it suggests that part of the much-heralded “return to the city” may just have been people delaying their moves to the suburbs while they held out for better economic conditions.

Badger is one of the best writers on urban affairs working today, and she takes pains to emphasize how limited and provisional that conclusion is. But I would take that one step further: even if 2014 is a return to the “old normal,” this particular data tells us very little about national housing preferences. Moreover, it necessarily misses important strengths and important weaknesses in urban cores.

The problem is that county-level data, on its own, is just not good at telling us anything about what kinds of neighborhoods Americans want. It’s as if the answer to the question we’ve asked has passed through a long game of telephone: by the time it gets to you, you have no idea whether what you’re hearing has anything to do with what you actually want to know.

There are at least two big reasons for this. The first is that counties at the center of their metropolitan areas aren’t a good proxy for “urban cores,” in the sense that Frey seems to mean. If Americans’ housing preferences have shifted towards the urban, then presumably that means not just neighborhoods that are closer to downtown: it means walkable streets, decent access to transit, perhaps a mix of housing stock that includes more apartments, and so on. But in the vast majority of American cities – and Brookings’ analysis includes all metropolitan areas with more than half a million people – those kinds of neighborhoods represent a minority of even the innermost county.

Take, for example, Travis County, Texas, which sits at the heart of the five-county Austin metropolitan area. Travis County’s neighborhoods range from newly-minted skyscrapers walking distance from the state capitol, to low-rise but recognizably urban communities like East Austin, to prototypical car-oriented suburbs like Pflugerville, to farmland. Travis County happens to be growing substantially – 26% in the last decennial Census – but without more detailed information, it’s impossible to know whether that’s because people are flocking to its urban core, or because places like Pflugerville are booming.

Downtown Austin:


Even in many of the largest, densest cities – ones that are definitely experiencing a continued boom in their urban core – using county-level data can be highly misleading. Chicago, for example, led the nation in the 2000s in population growth within two miles of its city hall, and has seen some of the most rapid gentrification of its urban neighborhoods of any city in the country. (It also showed up as one of the cities attracting the most “young and restless” – 25-to-34-year-olds with a four-year college degree – within three miles of downtown in our report late last year.) But Cook County, which contains all of the city of Chicago as well as its inner-ring suburbs, lost more than 3% of its population in the last Census. Again, county-level data completely erases the real growth in more recognizably “urban” neighborhoods.

The second reason is that a growing demand for city living might show up in two different numbers: one is population, but the other is housing prices. After all, in order for people to move to a city, there has to be somewhere for them to live. If the city doesn’t allow new housing to be built – or allows less than what people would like to buy – then population might flatline, but prices will skyrocket. Badger mentions this possibility towards the end of the piece, but it’s a much more serious problem for the data than is portrayed. It’s well-established that virtually every economically healthy city in the country permits less housing to be built than would be without zoning restrictions. In some places, that leads to population stagnation, or even loss, in places that are clearly in extremely high demand: in the 2000s, Brooklyn’s Park Slope saw its population increase by just one half of one percent – despite being one of the most desirable neighborhoods in one of the most desirable cities in the country. At the same time, according to the real estate website Trulia, the median home sales price in Park Slope rose by over 50%, or nearly $200,000.

And of course, rents and home prices are rising quite rapidly in many other urban neighborhoods, too. Moreover, as we’ve pointed out before at City Observatory, in some places, there’s evidence that prices are rising faster in central cities than in their suburbs. Taken with what we know about the restrictive power of local zoning codes, that’s overwhelming evidence that a large amount of the demand to live in urban cores translates not into population shifts, but higher housing prices.

The point here is not that, in a correct reading of the data, cities are “winning” in some simple sense. In fact, county-level data can hide some of the problems of characteristically urban neighborhoods, too. Many central counties contain lots of inner-ring suburbs, or outlying city neighborhoods, that may not be as dense as those right outside downtown, but still have urban-type grids, walkable retail districts, and much higher density than the younger suburbs further out. A generation or two ago, these places were bastions of the middle class; today, many are struggling, stuck between the newer, larger homes of the exurbs and the more dynamic, trendy urbanism of the core. By blending data from those areas with data from healthier city centers, we end up missing both.

Finally, county-level data ends up putting our focus on the few very recent years – 2011 to 2013 – when core-county population growth exceeded exurb-county growth. But that’s a very misleading portrayal of the timeline of urban revival. Signs of growing interest in living in the urban core were evident in places like New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago in the 1970s. But the work done on urban economic geography by Sean Riordan and Kendra Bischoff shows that even beyond the usual suspects – in cities like Denver, Seattle, or Dallas – there were signs that people with options were beginning to move back to urban neighborhoods decades ago.

On these maps, from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, show relatively wealthy neighborhoods in green and poorer neighborhoods in purple. The growing number of high-income households choosing to live in the center of Dallas is clear as early as 1980 - 1990.
These maps, from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, show relatively wealthy neighborhoods in green and poorer neighborhoods in purple. The growing number of high-income households choosing to live in the center of Dallas is clear as early as 1980 – 1990.


And, for all the reasons outlined here, county population numbers can’t tell us whether those decades-long trends are slowing or picking up steam, or whether more or fewer people actually want to live in “urban” neighborhoods. The answer to that question is very difficult, and mixed up in the interpretation of any number of demographic and economic indicators – including (but not necessarily limited to) home prices, new construction, and population on a much more geographically detailed level. But if we really want to know what most people want in a neighborhood, that’s where we have to look.