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U.S. City Growth May Not Be Overtaking Suburban Growth

Urbanists got excited when new population data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggested bigger growth in cities compared to their suburbs. Eric Jaffe interviews Columbia professor David King on why this isn't necessarily true.
July 19, 2012, 8am PDT | Akemi Leung
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The recent release of the U.S. Census Bureau's latest population data seemed to say that cities are finally growing faster than the suburbs. When it comes to relative growth rates calculated as percentages, that's true. But, Columbia University planning professor David King points out that the absolute numbers show otherwise.

Using Atlanta as an example, Eric Jaffe elaborates, "According to the Census, the downtown area grew at 2.4 percent while the suburbs grew at only 1.3 percent - a clear relative gain for the city. But the suburbs are much more populated to begin with, King reminds us. That means only 10,135 more people settled in the city, while 63,226 more settled in suburbia. In absolute terms, just 14 percent of metro Atlanta growth occurred downtown."

Although the hard numbers may be a disappointment to urbanists, King thinks that the data is still important and requires context. He explains that even a fraction of a percent growth rate could be significant depending on the city. The reason for its growth could be "investing in transit" while another city's reason could be "relaxing the zoning code." He believes that suburbs are similarly difficult to compare when some are "old streetcar suburbs" and others are investing to become "walkable denser communities."

In general, King suggests that "[w]hat we need to do is stop looking at these crude city-versus-suburb divides and we need to start looking at where is the growth actually happening."

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Published on Friday, July 13, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities
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