See ya, suburbs: More want to live in the big city – USA TODAY
BALTIMORE — When the City Sports running store opened here in 2006, then-manager Cami Walker found himself “begging people to come in.” The store was one of the first in the new Harbor East neighborhood near the popular Inner Harbor tourist zone.
“They’d say, ‘Where’s Harbor East?’ and you’d say, ‘Well, it’s east of the harbor.’ They’d say, ‘Where’s that?’ “
Mostly an empty space until the middle of the last decade, the neighborhood is now one of Baltimore’s most densely populated areas, bristling with restaurants, hotels, shops and condominiums. It has more in common with the glass-clad high-rises of Manhattan than the marble-stooped row houses of Baltimore.
Harbor East symbolizes a population shift taking place across the nation, reflected in new data released today by the Census Bureau. It finds that population growth has been shifting to the core counties of the USA’s 381 metro areas, especially since the economic recovery began gaining steam in 2010. Basically, the USA’s urban core is getting denser, while far-flung suburbs watch their growth dwindle.
Driven by young professionals and retiring Baby Boomers who like living in cities, the trend is “180 degrees” from the last decade’s rush to the exurbs, says William Frey, a demographer at Washington’s Brookings Institution, a research and policy group.
“People are hanging tough in urban areas,” he says. “Some of them are going to stay there for the long term.”
The trend also is driven by increasing numbers of young people delaying or foregoing marriage and childbirth, which often prompt moves to the suburbs.
Frey is cautious about predicting whether the denser urban trend could reverse the USA’s “long-term suburbanization,” but he says the move to cities “could be the new normal” as young people take to the amenities of big-city living as the economy continues to improve.
“Young people are not going to make that plunge to a suburban house because they think there’s risk to it,” he says. “And on top of that, they can’t afford the down payment.”
Frey says many outlying suburbs once grew in spite of whether the cities they orbited were thriving. Now, he says, the equation is changing. If exurbs are “part of a prosperous region” like Washington, D.C., they’ll survive. If not, he says, “Those places aren’t going to come back.”
Among other findings:
• The nation’s metro areas grew by about 2.3 million to 269.9 million people last year;
• About three in four metro areas gained population between 2012 and 2013 — of 381, only 92 lost population;
• In all but five of the 50 fastest-growing metro areas, the largest contributor to growth was net migration, not higher birth rates.
Robert Lang, who studies urban growth at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, says the move toward greater urban density is no accident. “There’s a lot more to the urban core now than 20 years ago because there’s been a lot more investment,” he says. The nation had to, in a sense, “learn how to build cities a second time,” he says.
City governments, investors and developers have spent a generation building less disruptive mass transit such as light rail and figuring out how to create appealing dense spaces, he says. “You don’t just get these numbers because a few people change their minds. You get these numbers because a whole turn occurs.”
In Baltimore’s Harbor East, the turn is startling. First imagined in the early 1980s as an extension of Baltimore’s downtown, the area has grown rapidly from warehouses and parking lots to massive high-rises. The neighborhood is sandwiched between the Inner Harbor, with its concert venues, chain restaurants and the National Aquarium, and Fells Point, with its cobblestones and sports bars.
The area is still in transition: Most days, residents wake to the comforting smell of bread baking in an industrial bakery a few blocks away. Its time is limited, however. The bakery’s owner, who also happens to be the neighborhood’s developer, plans to move the operation to an industrial park off Interstate 95 this summer.
Walker, who opened the running store in 2006, now works across the street in the upscale Arhaus Furniture store that occupies the first floor of a block-long condominium complex. She remembers when it was “a pile of dirt.” Now the building also houses a Pilates studio and several shops, including the city’s only Lululemon yogawear store.
Abi Frederick and her family moved here from San Francisco in 2010, landing in the neighborhood after her husband’s employer rented corporate housing on the block. She loved the fact that she and her three kids could walk to the aquarium and shop across the street at the Whole Foods Market, which has served as a neighborhood anchor since it opened in 2002. Last July, Frederick opened Haute Blow Dry Bar, an upscale salon, in suburban Towson. But four months later, she built a second salon here, a few doors down from Arhaus.
“I’ve always thought Harbor East is just going to be an amazing location,” she says. “It just seemed like the perfect spot. It’s like a big city in a little area.”