For over a century, American suburbs have been growing inexorably outward from central cities. Following World War II, this growth accelerated to the point where metropolitan regions in the United States now can have a 50- to 60-mile (80- to 96-km) radius. This ever-widening spread of suburbia seems to have continued through the past decade, if 2010 Census data serve as any indication. This, however, is not the whole story, and a closer look at facts on the ground suggest that the growth of the suburbs—now stalled by the housing bust—may in fact be winding down. If true, this would be a major and arguably a very beneficial shift in American urban development.

The traditional way of looking at the suburbs is to think of them like the growth rings of a tree. According to data from the 2010 Census, both the outer and inner suburban rings are where the action was in the past decade; in between them, the mature middle suburban ring grew more slowly. Will these trends continue? Will the outer suburbs continue to grow once housing markets recover? Will the move to the inner suburbs continue, or is the urge to live closer in but a flash in the pan?

USA Today recently reported on an analysis of suburban rings using 2010 Census data by Robert Lang, an urbanologist with the Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution. He reports on the growth of the three rings as follows:

  • The first ring outside the central city is the older, inner suburb, largely developed before World War II along trolley lines. Most [of these suburbs] declined following WWII as people moved to newer suburbs further out; recently, they have been redeveloped and have grown faster in the past decade than the United States as a whole, adding 6 million people according to Lang’s analysis, an 11.3 percent increase compared with the U.S. growth rate of 9.7 percent. Their locational advantages have been rediscovered, lying as they do close to the central city and often along existing or planned transit lines. This easy access to transit reduces the amount of driving needed, which, in turn, offsets their somewhat higher housing costs. They also offer the added charm of older, compact development patterns and a sense of place; it is this more urban feel that has once again become attractive to a growing number of households.
  • The next ring out is the mature, postwar suburb built from the 1950s through the 1980s; these [suburbs] grew more slowly in the past decade, adding 3.5 million people or 7.8 percent. They are composed mostly of low-density culs-de-sac that are now well settled and, in the minds of their residents, fully built out. There is little new development of the classic suburban design now occurring in them, and what development is happening is in growing urban clusters, suburban town centers that are reemerging or being newly developed.
  • The last ring out, lying outside the mature suburbs, is the newest, developed during the 1990s and the last decade. This outermost ring added 6.7 million—a 24.5 percent increase—according to Lang. This makes it the fastest-growing part of American metropolitan regions during the past decade. This ring is really composed of two rings, one of which was built in the 1990s and the other, even further out on the edge, built during the housing boom of the 2000s and often referred to as the exurbs.

The rapid growth on the furthest edges of metropolitan regions is a continuation of a pattern six decades old; what is new is the resurgence of the innermost ring of suburbs in the last decade. This new pattern of suburban growth, where both the innermost and outermost parts of the region are growing rapidly, has provided evidence to both those who believe that the suburbs will continue to grow forever outward in the years ahead, and to those who believe that the suburbs have reached an inflection point where most growth will shift to the closer-in parts of metropolitan regions.

Will the lower cost of housing on the outer edges, and Americans’ love of the new, draw yet another generation of homebuyers to these outer edges of metro regions? Or will the rising cost of driving in time and money and a new desire for more urban living draw the next generation of homebuyers to buy in the older, more settled parts of metropolitan regions?

It may seem hard to argue that the momentum of 60 years of outward suburban growth may be about to end based on the rapid growth of the outer suburbs shown in Lang’s analysis. There are, however, facts not shown by the census which argue that a new pattern of suburban development may be emerging.

More than any other ten-year census in the past 60 years, this one covers two decidedly distinct periods: the housing bubble of the first six years, and the housing bust of the last four. In fact, all suburban development halted in 2007 and the greatest impact of the bust has been in the newest, outer-edge suburbs.

The outer-ring suburbs are where the most suburban foreclosures have occurred and are still occurring. Master-planned communities that were under development in 2006 have stalled, leaving large areas of vacant lots and half-finished and vacant houses. These are the regions where investors have moved in to buy foreclosed homes at a fraction of their original sales prices and are now offering them for modest rents in hopes of a future rise in price. Home prices on the outer edges have fallen more than prices nationally or elsewhere in the suburbs, often by 50 percent or more of their original value.

The question is whether it is the first part of the past decade or the second part that is the truest indicator of the future. The collapse of the exurban suburbs is continuing today and will continue for some years more as the housing markets are recovering with painful slowness. Yet this might still be an aberration. In time, the large population of echo boomers—now in their 20s and early 30s—may decide that the lower cost of housing on the edge is their best hope for buying that first home, overlooking the greater costs in time and money they will incur by having to drive so much more than elsewhere in the suburbs. If they do, they will be following prior post-WWII generations of Americans, but they will also be giving up their strongly stated preference for more urban living.

This no mere academic debate among planners; the future of the outer edges of America’s metropolitan regions is on the line. If the outer edges do recover, the cost in needed new infrastructure, increased consumption of gasoline, and impact on land use and air quality will be substantial. Fortunately, the most probable outcome is that while there will be some people moving out for the lower cost of housing, more households than at anytime since 1950 will find a home closer in to either the central city or other job center. The reurbanizing of America is in fact beginning, though it will take time to fully manifest itself.