For nearly a half century, the death of suburbs and exurbs has been prophesied by pundits, urban real-estate interests and their media allies, and they ratcheted up the volume after the housing crash of 2007. The urban periphery was destined to become “the next slums,” Christopher Leinberger wrote in The Atlantic in 2008, while a recent book by Fortune’s Leigh Gallagher, The End of Suburbs, claimed that suburbs and exurbs were on the verge of extinction as people flocked back to dense cities such as New York.
This has become a matter of faith even among many supposed development professionals. “ There’s a pall being cast on the outer edges,” John McIlwain, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute, told USA Today. “The foreclosures, the vacancies, the uncompleted roads. It’s uncomfortable out there. The glitz is off.”
Yet an analysis by demographer Wendell Cox of the counties with populations over 100,000 that have gained the most new residents since 2010 tells us something very different: Suburbs and exurbs are making a comeback, something that even the density-obsessed New York Times has been forced to admit. Of the 10 fastest-growing large counties all but two — Orleans Parish, home to the recovering city of New Orleans, and the Texas oil town of Midland— are located in the suburban or exurban fringe of major metropolitan areas.
|Fastest Growiing US Counties: 2010-2012|
|Counties over 100,000 Population|
|Rank||County Equivalent Jurisdiction||Growth|
|5||Fort Bend, TX||7.16%|
|9||Prince William, VA||7.04%|
Not surprisingly several of these fast-growth areas are in burgeoning Texas metro areas. The population of Williamson County, on the outskirts of Austin, has expanded 7.94% since 2010, the strongest growth in the nation over that period. Far from turning into a slum, over the past 25 years the county’s residents have enjoyed the Lone Star state’s fastest rate of income growth and the sixth-highest in the nation. With a strong tech scene – Dell is headquartered in the Williamson town of Round Rock — the county has increased employment by 73% since 2000, the third highest rate in the country.
Another Austin outer suburb, Hays County, ranks third on our list, with population growth of 7.6% since 2010 and 67% since 2000. Also impressive has been the growth of another Texas exurb, Fort Bend County, to the west of Houston.
Since 2010 the county’s population has grown 7.2%, and since 2000 employment has increased 78%, in part due to the expansion of energy companies outside Houston. Fort Bend County is now home to 625,000 people, considerably more than the total population of most major core cities, including Atlanta, Cleveland, Baltimore and Portland. Like many of the boom counties, Fort Bend is also increasingly diverse, with a rapidly growing Asian population that is approaching 20% of the total. It is now the unlikely home to one of the nation’s largest Hindu temples.
In second place is Loudoun County, 25 miles from Washington, D.C., where the population has expanded 7.87% since 2010 and the number of jobs has grown 83% over the past decade. Much of this has come from tech and telecommunications companies, as well as growing numbers of jobs tied to Dulles Airport as well as the nation’s capital.
They are not on the road to “next slum” status: Loudoun is one of the nation’s wealthiest counties. Another D.C. exurb on our list in ninth place, Prince William County, Va., ranks among America’s 10 wealthiest counties in terms of per capita income.Most of the other fastest-growing counties have a similar profile, attracting large numbers well-educated residents to the fringe of urban regions.
What these findings demonstrate is that more people aren’t moving “back to the city” but further out. In the last decade in the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, inner cores, within two miles of downtown, gained some 206,000 people, while locations 20 miles out gained over 8.5 million. Although the recession slowed exurban growth, since 2011, notes Jed Kolko at Trulia, suburbs have continued to grow far faster than inner ring areas as well as downtown. Americans, he concludes, “still love their suburbs.”
Rather than an inevitable long-range shift, the post-crash slowdown of suburban growth seems to have been largely a response to economic factors. The retro-urbanist dream of eliminating, or at least undermining, suburban alternatives depends very much on maintaining recessionary conditions that discourage relocation, depress housing starts, as well as lowering marriage and birthrates.
Where incomes are growing along with rapid job growth , suburban and exurban growth tends to be strong. The metro regions that contain our fastest-growing counties — Austin, Houston, Nashville and Northern Virginia — all epitomize this phenomenon. For example, nearly 80% of all housing growth in greater Houston takes place in the areas west of Beltway 8 (the outer beltway). A similar pattern can be seen in the D.C. area, where the number of units permitted in Loudoun has more than doubled since 2007. In 2012 permit issuances were the highest since 2005, and the vast majority were for either detached or attached single-family houses.
This doesn’t mean the central areas of thriving Washington or Houston are in decline; both core areas enjoy modest population growth not seen in many more hard-pressed cities. But this highly visible and relentlessly promoted growth has not altered the fundamental pattern of faster development on the fringes. As the economy strengthens, these trends will become evident in other areas.
It now seems clear that the preference for single-family houses did not change in the recession, but was just stunted by it. With construction starts up again— more than two-thirds single family — this trend is beginning to re-assert itself. Mortgage lending is now at the highest level in five years.
Indeed suburbia — or sprawl to use the perjorative term — is back even in the anti-suburban stretches of the San Francisco area, where suburban and exurban developers are once again pushing plans to develop new housing for the area’s expanding workforce. In long-suffering areas such as the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, there has been a steady housing recovery, leading to talk of new development.
Other signs suggest that the widely predicted dense city nirvana may need to be put on hold. For example, car sales — automobiles dominate transportation in most suburbs and exurbs — have been on the upswing, hitting a record in August. And despite predictions that the size of new homes would shrink, the median home size in the country has continued to rise, reaching a record high in 2012.Even shopping malls, long seen as doomed, are experiencing something of a resurgence.
Given the tendency of families to move to suburbs, this should spark further growth there in the future. High-density neighborhoods and the densest U.S. cities may be good for many things, and certain individuals, but not so much for families. During the last decade, suburbs and exurbs accounted for four-fifths of all household growth, a pattern that does not seem likely to change.
Indeed, what we are seeing now is not the “end of suburbs” but the end of a brief period in which peripheral development was quashed by the severity of the Great Recession. With the return of even modest economic growth, we can expect that most demographic growth will continue to favor suburbs and exurbs, as has been the case for the better part of the last half century.