Brookings: five waves of change will reshape US cities in the 2010s

A new report out of Brookings predicts that growth, diversity, aging populations, income polarization and educational issues will dominate big city agendas over the coming decade. Also, the 'Rust Belt'-'Sun Belt' divide is no longer relevant.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer on

Not too long ago, we described our cities as either being part of older "Rust Belt" metro areas, or as part of the booming "Sun Belt." Such a simplistic description no longer describes the new character and fabric of our metropolitan areas, which are being dramatically reshaped by economic and demographic trends.

Our cities are not the same as they were just ten years ago, and continue to evolve. The Brookings Institute recently released a report, The State of Metropolitan America, which documents new waves of change reshaping our metro areas, which house two-thirds of America’s population:

Growth and outward expansion: "Between 2000 and 2009, [metro areas] grew by a combined 10.5 percent, versus 5.8 percent growth in the rest of the country. But they continued to spread out, too, as their less developed, outer areas grew at more than three times the rate of their cities and inner suburbs."

Population diversification: "The United States population is today one-third nonwhite, and those groups accounted for 83 percent of national population growth from 2000 to 2008. Immigration continues to fuel our growth, too, and now nearly one-quarter of U.S. children have at least one immigrant parent.... Large metropolitan areas will get there first, as their under-18 population had already reached majority non-white status by 2008."

Aging of the population: "Large metro areas are in some ways aging faster than the rest of the nation, experiencing a 45 percent increase in their 55-to-64 year-old population from 2000 to 2008. As a result, their single-person households are growing more rapidly as well, especially in suburban communities that were not designed with these populations in mind."

Uneven higher educational attainment: "More than one-third of U.S. adults held a post-secondary degree in 2008, up from one-quarter in 1990, helping to propel our economic growth. But younger adults, especially in large metro areas, are not registering the same high levels of degree attainment as their predecessors. Moreover, the African American and Hispanic groups projected to make up a growing share of our future workforce now lag their white and Asian counterparts in large metro areas on bachelor’s degree attainment by more than 20 percentage points."

Income polarization: "By 2008 high-wage workers in large metro areas out-earned their low-wage counterparts by a ratio of more than five to one, and the number of their residents living in poverty had risen 15 percent since 2000."

With these changes, cities are evolving into new classifications, beyond the simplistic "Rust Belt" and "Sun Belt" monikers used in the 1980s and 1990s. As Brookings observes, "in some ways, large metropolitan areas actually became more different from one another in the 2000s, making it even more important to understand American society from the individualized perspectives of these places." These metro areas are "no longer easily grouped along traditional regional lines, such as Sun Belt versus Snow Belt, or East versus West."

Instead, Brookings says there are seven categories that define the new evolving nature of US cities:

Next Frontier metro areas: "These areas exceed national averages on population growth, diversity, and educational attainment. Of these nine metro areas, eight lie west of the Mississippi River (Washington, D.C. is the exception)."

New Heartland metro areas: "These 19 metro areas include many in the 'New South' where African Americans are the dominant minority group, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, as well as largely white metro areas throughout the Midwest and West, such as Indianapolis and Portland, Oregon."

Diverse Giant metro areas: These are the largest metro areas in the country, "including the three most populous (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago), as well as coastal anchors such as Miami and San Francisco. These nine regions post above-average educational attainment and diversity, but below-average population growth, owing in part to their large sizes."

Border Growth metro areas: "These areas are mostly located in southern border states, and as such are marked by a significant and growing presence of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants. Only Orlando lies outside the main orbit of this group of 11 metro areas, which stretches from east Texas, through Arizona and Nevada, and up California’s Central Valley."

Mid-Sized Magnet metro areas: These areas "have experienced high growth, but exhibit lower shares of Hispanic and Asian minorities, and lower levels of educational attainment. Like many Border Growth centers, many of these 15 mid-sized, mostly Southeastern locations got caught in the growth spiral of the 2000s that ended abruptly with the housing crash."

Skilled Anchors: These areas are "slow-growing, less diverse metro areas that boast higher-than-average levels of educational attainment. Of the 19 nationwide, 17 lie in the Northeast and Midwest, including large regions such as Boston and Philadelphia, and smaller regions such as Akron and Worcester. Many boast significant medical and educational institutions."

Industrial Cores: These areas "are in some ways the most demographically disadvantaged of the metropolitan types. These 18 metro areas are largely older industrial centers of the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast. Their populations are slower-growing, less diverse, and less educated than national averages, and significantly older than the large metropolitan average. These metro areas lost population in the aggregate in the 2000s."

Interestingly, in a reversal of historic trends, the report adds, "cities gained population at suburbs’ expense in the wake of the housing crash; a majority of members all major racial/ethnic groups now live in suburbs; and the suburban poor population grew at roughly five times the rate of the city poor population over the decade."

The challenges that lay ahead: "how to support communities with rapidly aging populations, how to meet family and labor market needs through immigration, and how to help lower-paid workers support themselves and their families simply cannot go unaddressed for another decade without risking our collective standard of living and the quality of our democracy."

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards