Trulia Throws Cold Water on ‘Death of Suburbia’ Argument

by 15 Oct 2012

(WSJ) -- On Page One of Wednesday’s Journal, we wrote about a museum in Kansas that caters to America’s undying fascination with suburbia. Merits of the museum aside, the article highlights a persistent theme in American culture that has fascinated demographers, urbanists and especially home buyers for several generations: the question of whether or not the suburbs are alive and well or hollowed-out and dying.

Over the summer, some Census data emerged suggesting that in the majority of the nation’s metropolitan areas, more city centers are growing faster than suburban communities, in part an effect of the housing crash, which made it harder for many families to move.

However, this week, real-estate data company Trulia weighed in with some unconventional wisdom, arguing that the Census data is misleading, and that in the 50 biggest metro areas in the U.S., the suburbs are actually growing faster than cities.

According to Trulia, the big problem with the Census data, which were given wide visibility in an analysis by the Brookings Institution, is that the Census does not distinguish between growth rates in large cities, and growth rates in the counties in which those cities are located. In other words, the data assume that in metro areas that are entirely located inside a single county, household growth is consistent between, well, cities and suburbs, says Trulia’s chief economist, Jed Kolko.

But William Frey, the Brookings demographer who did the analysis, says that the Census’s data is broadly accurate, and when looked at over a longer time frame does capture the trend of how subrurban growth has slowed compared to cities.

“Jed used a completely different definition of cities and suburbs than I did. I’m not concerned about whether suburban growth is a tiny bit higher than city growth, or vice versa,” Mr. Frey said. “I think the big story is this tremendous slowdown in suburban growth.”

Trulia looked at the issue using Zip Code-specific data from the U.S. Postal Service, observing how many addresses are occupied and receiving mail, in 50 of the country’s largest metros. When comparing the largest city in the metro to the areas around it — as the Census did — Trulia found that the number of suburban households grew only a hair’s breadth faster than it did in the metro’s largest city, at a rate of 0.546% in the last year versus 0.536%.

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