During the housing bubble, Americans moved in droves to the exurbs, to newly paved subdivisions on what was once rural land. Far-out suburbs had some of the fastest population growth in the country in the early 2000s, fueled by cheap housing and easy mortgages. And these places helped redefine how we think about metropolitan areas like Washington, pushing their edges farther and farther from the traditional downtown.
In the wake of the housing crash, these same places took the biggest hit. Population growth in the exurbs stalled. They produced a new American phenomenon: the ghost subdivision of developments abandoned during the housing collapse before anyone got around to finishing the roads or sidewalks.
These scenes and demographic trends left the impression that maybe Americans had changed their minds about exurban living. New Census data, though, suggests that eight years after the housing crash, Americans are starting to move back there again.
The fledgling trend, captured in data through 2014, raises questions about whether American preferences for where and how to live truly changed much during the housing bust, or if we simply put our exurban aspirations on hold. At the same time, the shift calls into question a parallel and popular narrative: that Americans who once preferred the suburbs would now rather move into the city.
Demographic data over the last three years have tentatively supported this argument, with implications for the type of housing Americans want (smaller homes over large McMansions), the type of communities they prefer (“walkable” over car-dependent ones), and where developers should plan to build. The evidence: From 2011 until 2013, dense counties at the center of large metropolitan areas in the U.S. saw faster population growth than the exurbs, a fact cheered by city-lovers as a sign that urban living was on the rise again.
The updated Census county population estimates released Thursday, though, show that the exurbs are now again growing faster than more urban places, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.