After years of booming growth, cities around the United States appear to be slowing down. But that's not quite the case in the Washington region. Here, new residents are simultaneously moving back to the city and also farther out into suburban areas.
Last week, the Census Bureau released population estimates for counties and metropolitan areas in the US for 2016. That includes counts for the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metropolitan Area, which includes the District of Columbia and 27 surrounding counties and cities in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Between 2010 and 2016, the DC metropolitan area gained over 495,000 residents, bringing it up to a population of 6.1 million people last year. The region is growing slower than it has in the past. It added just 53,508 people last year, compared to 89,000 people in 2011.
But it's still enough to make the DC metropolitan area the 10th-fastest growing region in the nation, and that's what makes it an anomaly. As Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic noted on Twitter, the nation's fastest growing areas are southern and sprawly, like Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Atlanta. Meanwhile, older northeastern and Midwestern cities are once again losing population. The census views Baltimore City as a county, and it was the third fastest-shrinking county in the nation behind those that contain Chicago and Detroit.
This shift is enough for researcher Jed Kolko (and others) to declare that the “back to the city” trend over the past few years may have passed, and that Americans are moving back to the suburbs as they did before the Great Recession.
That's sort of the case here. The region's four biggest jurisdictions remain the three inner-ring suburban counties (Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's) and the District of Columbia. But over the past six years, growth has shifted towards closer in towards DC, and farther out into the outer-ring suburbs.
People are moving closer in, and farther out
Here's a graph of the ten fastest-growing DC area cities and counties last year. You'll see they include a mix of close-in places (the District, Arlington, and Alexandria) and farther-out suburban counties (Loudoun, Prince William, Frederick). Montgomery County, which for the first time broke one million residents in 2012, is on the list too.
Nearly one out of every four of the region's new residents between 2010 and 2016 moved to the District, Arlington, or Alexandria, while another 36% moved to the inner-ring suburban counties, which include Montgomery, Prince George's, and Fairfax. The remaining 41% moved farther out.
That trend appeared to change last year. Twenty-nine percent of all new residents moved to the region's core, while half of all new residents between 2015 and 2016 moved to the outer suburbs. The share of new residents that went to the inner-ring suburbs fell to 21%.
What's happening in the inner ring? It appears that population growth in Prince George's and Fairfax counties (including the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church) has bottomed out over the past few years. Meanwhile, Montgomery County continues to grow, albeit more slowly. In a way, it's a microcosm of the entire region: it's adding lots of new people in close-in urban places like Silver Spring as well as in newly developing areas like Clarksburg, while many of its older suburban communities are losing population.
What does this mean?
What we're seeing here in Greater Washington, and in other metropolitan areas around the country, is what urban analyst Aaron Renn calls the donut. Even in cities that are losing population, people are still moving to close-in, gentrifying neighborhoods. And ten years after the Great Recession, new homes on the suburban fringe once again plentiful and cheap and people are moving there to buy them.
Meanwhile, the edges of the city and inner suburbs are caught in the middle. Some are doing really well, while others struggle with growing poverty and disinvestment. You can already see this in our region. While this Census data only tells part of the story, it's a trend we'll have to watch in the coming years.