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I read an interesting blog on Washington Post today on migration between the cities and suburbs.  The author, Ezra Klein, examines Atlanta growth figures and points out that the city’s population growth rate is nearly twice that of the suburbs, but that the suburbs are ten times as large in population terms.  In essence, while the suburban exodus might have stopped, the suburbs are still growing faster in terms of raw numbers.

He’s right in one sense, but I’d jump in with a bit more precision.   Obviously, he’s right that there’s not a massive exodus away from the suburbs into the city.  What I think is more accurate to say is that there is starting to be an exodus away from the deep exurban areas, or what you might call the “outer residential ‘burbs”.  The data in the article does not necessarily uncover this phenomenon, but I think it’s the real trend.

People are becoming more attracted to urban areas again, no doubt, but they are also becoming more attracted to what I would term “hybrid areas”, that look part urban, part suburban.  These tend to be “inner suburbs”, as well.  In Atlanta, some examples might include Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Vinings, and Marietta.  In DC, Fairfax, Vienna, Tyson’s Corner, and Bethesda are probably good  examples.

I call these areas “hybrids”, because they have a lot of characteristics of traditional urban areas.  They are employment centers, with numerous office buildings, and a large flow of people into the area every day.   They have a lot of commercial retail space.  And yet, many people live in these areas, or at least very close by.   In essence, they might not be a traditional urban city like Midtown Atlanta, Manhattan, or DC, but likewise, they are also not traditional residential-only suburbs.

Once you start to factor in these “hybrid” areas, things become more complex.  And it’s difficult to come to an agreement on what precisely should count.  But I think in general, these areas tend to be inner “suburbs”, reasonable access to mass transit, and a lot of people work in these areas on a daily basis.

My own thesis on the housing market is not radical re-urbanization, but rather than we would see increased migration to highly urban areas, as well as these “hybrid” inner suburbs, which will become increasingly urban in character.  If you look at housing market trends over the nation for the past five years, I think you can see evidence that this is happening.

Defining Urban Atlanta?

There are also a few other problems with Ezra Klein’s comparison.  The City of Atlanta might only have about 1/10 of the population of the “suburbs”, but a lot of those “suburbs” aren’t really “burbs” in any meaningful sense. The City of Atlanta is actually one of the smallest core cities for a major metropolitan area in the US. Compare it to Charlotte, for instance, which dominates its entire metro area.

Many parts of DeKalb County that are not in the City of Atlanta are urban.  I’m assuming that Klein is counting places like Decatur as “suburban”, even though that’s not necessarily the case.  Once you take those areas and add in our “hybrid areas” like Brookhaven, Dunwoody, and Sandy Springs, “urban Atlanta” becomes much larger and complex.

It’s difficult to piece together the actual stats with complete agreement, but I think there’s a definite trend here.  It’s one away from outer suburbs that are residential-only, as more people migrate towards centers that look a bit more like a traditional city in terms of work, shopping, and housing.  And this trend is manifesting itself in numerous different ways, only one of which is that people are moving back to traditional core cities.  The more surprising trend that isn’t getting nearly as much press coverage is that places like Fairfax, VA and Dunwoody, GA are becoming more and more “urban”.