How Americans’ Return To The City Could Change Our Politics

(Credit: Flickr user Aimee Wenske)

The demographic story of the last century was the rise of the suburbs. But are we finally moving into an era where the rise of the suburbs will stop and perhaps even reverse itself, leading to the city reasserting itself as America’s most important political unit?

Between 1940 and 1950 the suburban share of the population increased from 15 percent to 23 percent, while cities’ share was basically unchanging, at around 33 percent. By 1960 suburbs accounted for 31 percent of the total, with cities’ share slightly declining, to 32 percent. By 1970 there were, for the first time, more suburban residents (38 percent) than city residents (31 percent), and by the 1990s suburban voters were casting the majority of ballots in national elections.

The rise of the suburbs has been steady and seemingly unstoppable. But a new analysis of Census population data by William Frey at the Brookings Institute suggests it might be time to rethink that prediction. According to Frey:

[T]hese new numbers raise the prospect that large cities may be in store for something of a demographic comeback. During the 2000-2010 decade, including the pre-recession housing boom years, many big cities grew slowly or even lost population as residents decamped for growing smaller cities and suburbs. From 2010 to 2012, however, cities with over one-half million population grew considerably more rapidly than they did, on average, over the previous ten years….

The faster growth of large cities might relate to the continued slowdown in suburban growth, held back by a still-lagging housing market. In 2010-11, big cities in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas grew faster than their suburbs for the first time since the 1920s, a trend that prevailed again in 2011-12. Among the 51 metropolitan areas with more than one million residents, 24 saw their cities grow faster than their suburbs from 2011 to 2012. That was true of just 8 metro areas from 2000 to 2010. Metropolitan areas exhibiting the largest city growth advantages included Atlanta, Charlotte, Denver, and Washington, D.C.

Will these trends persist? It’s far too early to say for sure. However, there are some solid reasons to believe that they might.

Frey notes that “today’s young people…seem to be less suburban-bound than earlier generations,” leading many of them to flock to our reviving cities. Edward Luce seconds this point in his excellent Financial Times essay, “The Future of the American City.” Luce also notes that retiring Baby Boomers who are “as bored of the suburbs as their children” may also boost urban populations. In general, he believes that “shifting US demography is a friend to the reviving downtown.”

He may be right. If so, this could be yet another factor boosting Democratic prospects over time. The denser the area, the greater the level of Democratic support:

If we are indeed on the verge of an urban revival, add one more factor to the Democrats’ already length list of demographic advantages.