Cities’ Growth Outpaces Suburbs’ for First Time Since 1920s

Blame the recession: more urbanites are staying put, and more young people are flocking to join them

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New Orleans topped the list as the fastest-growing city in the U.S.

Dreaming of a white picket fence? You may have to settle for a fifth-floor walk-up.

U.S. cities are growing faster than the suburbs for the first time since the 1920s. Twenty-seven of the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas exceeded their suburbs in population growth in the nine months between July 1, 2011, and April 1, 2012, according to census data.

“This is the culmination of a trend that’s been going on the last several years,” says William Frey, a demographer and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Using other data sets, you can see that this trend was kind of starting already around 2007.”

But while the trends aren’t new, 2012 became the tipping point when cities finally overtook the suburbs. The data even showed growth in areas that historically had been declining in population. Midwest cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis all gained in population in the past year, despite in some cases a decadelong decline. Even Detroit and Cleveland showed smaller population losses than they had suffered in the 10 years prior.

(MORE: Big U.S. Cities Growing Faster than Suburbs)

But just because these cities are growing doesn’t mean that people want to be there. Experts say that even though the recent crash in property prices has made the suburbs more affordable, because of a lagging economic recovery, people can’t afford to move out of urban areas. Young families who would normally lead the exodus to the suburbs are “hunkering down” in cities, Frey says. Young professionals, especially, are living in low-rent apartments with roommates or moving in with parents rather than buying a house in the burbs.

Urban growth isn’t all bad. “The crash also gives younger people and other households a chance to give cities a second look,” Frey says. Denver, Washington, Austin, Seattle and Atlanta have become “youth magnets” — areas that have had an influx of young people looking for jobs.

Which metropolis topped the list of fastest-growing cities? New Orleans came in at No. 1, growing 4.9% to 360,740 people, reflecting an ongoing return to the area after Hurricane Katrina six years ago (the Big Easy’s suburbs grew as well). The city’s population is now at 79.2% of pre-Katrina population estimates.

Texas cities are also exploding, accounting for eight of the 15 fastest-growing urban centers. Overall, the population of U.S. cities grew 1% in 2010 and ’11, with large cities growing at an accelerated rate of about 1.3%.

MORE: Census Update: What the World Will Look like in 2050