urban-growthIf you’ve had a notion in recent years that Atlanta is getting crowded “inside the Perimeter,” you’re right. Some new research shows that the core cities in America’s largest metropolitan areas have been growing faster than the suburbs outside those cities, which the experts regard as a significant change.

And — no surprise — the City of Atlanta has posted one of the strongest records of population growth since 2001 among the 75 large urban areas  surveyed. Also no surprise, the worst economy since the Great Depression is partly responsible, although this trend apparently started before the recession and is expected to continue even when the economy recovers.

The research by Brookings Institution demographer Richard H. Frey was reported in The Wall Street Journal, and can be accessed at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124641839713978195.html. As with most population changes, this one “is the result of a whole slew of factors,” says the WSJ, citing yuppies who prefer a dense urban lifestyle to immigrants who tend to be younger and have slightly higher birth rates.

But clearly, the other major new factor has been the recession, which has prevented inner city homeowners from selling even if they wanted to. It has also led to mortgage foreclosures that put cheaper houses on the close-in market.

The central city population of  U.S. metro areas with populations of a million or more grew 0.97 percent from July 2007 to July 2008, compared to 0.9 percent in the 2006-2007 year and an average of 0.5 percent between 2002 and 2005, the WSJ reports.

But for those who would like to see a fundamental shift in urban growth back to the core, the message from another demographer, Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau, is this: Don’t get too excited. He tells the WSJ that it’s an open question whether this pattern will continue when the current recession is over. Contrary to the wishes of some people, Mather maintains that suburban living and car-based commuting “will remain the preference of most Americans,” especially the middle-class.

I’d like to differ somewhat with Mather. I’ve thought for some time that local population growth “inside the Perimeter” is driven by more than temporary factors, even traffic. It may be my own wishful thinking, but it looks to me like people are doing this by choice. Real estate developers aren’t stupid, so they must be building all those condos and lofts in anticipation of some kind of population momentum they see coming.

At this stage, I can’t tell if the changes I see within the City of Atlanta reflect the latest population shifts, or the shifts  reflect the changes. But when I drive on Peachtree Street from Buckhead to Midtown, I’m impressed. Atlanta looks like a city now. This is not to suggest that the suburban “edge cities” aren’t urban as well.

According to the data from Frey of the Brookings Institution, the City of Atlanta posted the 4th biggest growth rate in 2008, or 3.4 percent, behind Forth Worth, Texas (3.6 percent), Raleigh N. C. (3.8 percent) and New Orleans (8.2 percent). Indeed, next to Atlanta, Raleigh and Fort Worth have posted the best growth rates since 2001 among southern cities. Frey regards New Orleans as something of a special case, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. That city’s post-hurricane growth of 36.7 percent in 2007 was an aberration.

Charlotte, N. C.,  was a top 10 growth leader only once, in 2006 when it  tied with Atlanta for 8th place with growth rates of 3.2 percent.

The urban centers that lost population consistently since 2001 come as no surprise, most being older industrial cities of the North: Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Memphis was the only southern city to consistently lose population in this period.

On balance, the research reported by the WSJ is just one more indication that Atlanta, among major cities, continues to attract people. That’s the case even if many of those who moved back inside the Perimeter came from outside the Perimeter. If nothing else, it should give the folks at City Hall some encouragement that Atlanta is still a growth engine, which of course translates into more revenue to the city.


Petula Clark sings “Downtown:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKCnHWas3HQ

The Lovin’ Spoonful sing “Hot Town, Summer in the City:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWXcjYNZais&feature=related

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Tom Walker

Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina Aug. 11, 1935, Tom Walker graduated from the University of South Carolina and did post-graduate work at UCLA. He started work at The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina in 1958 and later worked for The Columbia Record, the afternoon half of the State-Record Co., covering politics, courts, police and civil rights in the '60s. After a little more than a year at the Los Angeles City News Service, a local news wire service in L.A., he joined The Associated Press in Charlotte, North Carolina. In February 1967, he came to The Atlanta Journal and was persuaded (forced?) to take the job as real estate editor. When the then-business editor left in 1970 Tom became business editor. When the Journal and Atlanta Constitution staffs merged in the '80s he became a staff writer, a post he held until leaving for a career as a free-lance writer in 2007.