U.S. Experiences Shifting Urban Migration Patterns

By Maciej Wilowski, National News Editor

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, urban migration patterns have changed drastically in the United States.

Suburban areas, which had expanded dramatically in both population and size during the housing boom of the early 2000’s, were hit sharply by the mortgage meltdown and resulting foreclosures that came with the financial crisis. For the first time in decades, Americans began moving back to large metropolitan areas en masse, in what would be known as the “back to the city” movement. Whereas urban decay and the movement of American households outside of core urban areas were a common feature of the late twentieth century, particularly during the 1970’s, 80’s, and early 90’s, this past decade has seen the impressive revitalization of once-neglected urban areas as large numbers of millennials and young Americans have forged new communities in metropolitan districts.

The Brookings Institution, which does extensive research on demographic, economic, and social trends taking place in the U.S. and internationally, recently published a series of articles on the internal migration patterns of Americans over the 2016-17 period. One of the main findings was that, despite continued strong growth in many urban areas, particularly in the “Sun Belt” metropolitan areas, the long-term trend of suburbanization might be gaining steam once again. Whereas the period from 2008-2015, encompassing the Great Recession itself and the years-long recovery period afterward, was characterized by urban growth rates substantially exceeding those of non-urban areas, over the past two years however their growth momentum has slowed.

Numerous factors, including rising renting costs and standard-of-living expenses in the largest metropolitan areas, may be prompting families to consider finding a home in the exurbs or suburbs of major cities. Millennials in particular have been faced with numerous constraints when it came to buying a first home in the suburbs in the early years of the recovery, and as prices in urban areas today accelerate rapidly, young adults find themselves priced out of large cities such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, or Boston. Indeed, when looking at data, Brookings analysts discovered that 2012 was the peak year of the “back to the city” movement, and the rate of growth in urban areas has been trending slightly downward ever since.

Of the 20 fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. in 2016-2017, all but three were in the designated “Sun Belt” region of the country. Dallas, according to the Brookings Institution, had the largest population increase with a net gain of 146,000 people over a 12-month period. Other fast-growing cities also tended to be located in the Southern half of the U.S., with Atlanta, Houston, Washington D.C., Orlando, Miami, and Austin, TX all gaining more than 50,000 residents during this period. West Coast cities focusing on the technology industry, such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland continued to grow but at a much slower pace compared to recent years as housing costs in their urban neighborhoods have priced out many households.

On the end of the spectrum, the cities  experiencing the lowest growth were predominantly located in the “Rust Belt” regions of the Midwest and parts of the Northeast, along with a select few areas in the Deep South. Ten of these areas actually lost population during 2016-17, a list that includes Chicago, Cleveland, Youngstown, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Birmingham, AL., among others.

Also of note, a recent migration phenomenon, taking place mainly in the Northeast has called the attention of demographers. This is the growth of “middle-tier” cities and smaller urban areas scattered throughout parts of the country. In the Northeastern region, this includes towns such as Scranton and Allentown, Pennsylvania in addition to Springfield, Massachusetts, which both lie outside their respective larger metropolitan areas (New York City/Philadelphia for the former, and Boston for the latter), that have seen an increase in population growth rates over recent years. Similar examples in other parts of the country include Boise, Idaho, Las Vegas, and Tucson, Arizona. These smaller cities, while relatively close in proximity to larger metropolitan areas, provide greater affordability to families while retaining the services and amenities characteristic of a larger city. According to the Brookings Institution analyst and contributor William H. Frey, the spreading out and dispersion of the population increasingly outside of the biggest metropolitan areas may reflect an improving economy and the recovery of regions severely affected by the Great Recession. Families and individuals with plans to move are increasingly considering a wide variety of locations and opportunities when it comes to finding a new place of residence.


A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 10th print edition.

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