When the GIs came home from World War II, they married, produced the baby boom and moved en masse away from the urban centers to a relatively new way of living for most Americans. The suburbs sprouted quickly in the farmland that had once surrounded the cities and soon came to be known, accurately, as bedroom communities.
Eventually, families in search of larger but more affordable homes on large lots moved farther and farther out, leaving even the suburbs behind to create ever-more remote developments that came to be known as exurbs. Well into the last decade, their growth outpaced even the housing bubble.
Like many trends, it seemed likely to continue indefinitely — until it didn't. The recession brought development in the remote urban fringes to an abrupt halt, according to a new Census report, leaving behind a forest of foreclosed signs amid half-built subdivisions.
Economist Robert Shiller, co-creator of a respected housing index, told The Associated Press, "The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us." Moreover, he believes that exurban housing prices "may not recover in our lifetime."
It would be going a little too far to say that the migratory tide has completely reversed itself, but for the first time in 20 years or so the growth of cities and their inner suburbs has surpassed that of the exurbs.
One key reason: Urban areas are where the jobs are.
As an example of the dramatic change in the exurbs, AP offers exurban Kendall County, Ill., 50 miles southwest of Chicago. From 2000 to 2010, it was the nation's fastest-growing county. By the end of 2011, its growth had stalled and its growth rate dropped it to 236th among U.S. counties.
USA Today noted that all but two of the 39 most urbanized counties grew from 2010 to 2011. (The exceptions were the counties containing hard-hit and hard-luck Detroit and Cleveland.)
AP says that 99 of the fastest-growing exurbs and suburbs at the housing peak showed little or no growth in 2011. The exception was the national capital exurb of Spotsylvania County, Va., and that may because the Defense Department is relocating several massive facilities to Washington's southern suburbs.
The recession was the principal culprit in the end, perhaps only temporary, of suburban sprawl, but so were high gas prices, long commutes on jammed highways, the tendency of couples to delay having children, and the growing preference of retirees for walkable neighborhoods with amenities.
And what is the fate of the exurbs? Just as inner suburbs are growing up to be cities in their own right, the exurbs will grow up to be the suburbs of these new urban centers. And the cycle continues.
— Scripps Howard