Whither the Back to the City Movement?

Aaron Renn, the Urbanophile, has a useful post over at that examines some of the data from the 2010 census on migration in and out of big cities. The takeaway? The back to the city movement is much ado about nothing…except for downtowns. Most people are fleeing to the suburbs, and the central cities continue to languish. According to Renn:

“Despite claims of an urban renaissance, the 2000s actually turned out to be worse than the 1990s for central cities. The one bright spot was downtowns, which showed strong gains, albeit from a low base. The resurgence of the city story seemed largely fueled by intra-census estimates by the government that proved to be wildly inflated when the actual 2010 count was performed.”

But, there’s a twist, Renn says. If we look at county-level tax data, the migration to suburban counties as slowed and migration into central city counties has remained flat or ticked up a bit. Renn looks at New York City, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. This is good news for older parts of our metro areas. A Renn concludes:

“Still, these are clearly figures that should inspire some at least small-scale optimism in urban advocates. There has clearly been a shift affecting the net migration in these cities. And the same pattern is visible, though less easily attributable to just the urban core, in a large number of other metros around the country. In particular, the fact the in-migration from the suburbs to the core held steady or even increased is a sign of some urban health.

“Back to the city as a mass movement? Not yet. But it’s certainly an improvement. These intra-regional migration statistics are key figures to keep an eye on as we look for any sign of a true inflection point in the overall population trends for America’s urban centers. The whole pattern could also shift again — in one direction or the other — as the economy, albeit slowly, comes back to life and people once again get back into the housing market.”

To me, this suggests that the pace of decentralization in metropolitan America might actually be slowing even if it doesn’t represent a rush back to the city.