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New study buries myth that cities are growing faster than suburbs

The 1990 movie "Avalon" chronicles key events in the lives of three generations of a Baltimore family. The movie is about the little things that keep families together or tear them apart, and this family's ups and downs are set against the backdrop of the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s. The urban closeness and suburban isolation felt by some of the characters are drawn straight from social histories of the era.

If you think back on the past 50 years or so, it is hard to remember a development trend or even an election that did not spark some debate about the split between urban and suburban dwelling. First, Inner cities were abandoned by Middle America; then urban blighted areas were gentrified by younger members of the Baby Boom generation. Commercial development went from strip malls to mixed-use buildings in both urban and suburban downtowns. At one point in the 2000s, developers designed suburban malls to resemble tony shopping districts of small cities.

Census data is one driver of real estate trends and land use policies. Developers want to be where the people are -- either where they work or where they live. And for years now, census data has been telling us that the suburbs have been growing faster than the cities. Until this summer, that is.

Data from the Census Bureau showed that 27 of the country's 51 largest metropolitan areas experienced more growth in the cities than in the suburbs. For example, the Washington, D.C.-Arlington metro area saw city population increase by 2.4 percent between 2010 and 2011. The suburbs grew just 1.5 percent during the same period. The number may look low, but the shift in trends, according to census data analysts, is remarkable.

But one real estate market data company challenges the census results. Trulia says the census numbers don't reflect actual urban and suburban populations. Using the company's more accurate methodology, according to Trulia's chief economist, paints a different picture, a picture in which suburbs continue to grow at faster rates than cities.

What's the difference? We'll discuss that in our next post.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Trulia Throws Cold Water on 'Death of Suburbia' Argument," Robbie Whelan, Oct. 12, 2012

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