WASHINGTON — Since the advent of the automobile in the 1920s, America's suburbs have been growing faster than cities as people fled urban life for quieter, less-crowded expanses.
But new Census Bureau data indicate that, in general, cities last year grew faster than suburbs, reflecting an urban renaissance accelerated by the Great Recession.
For all 51 metro areas with a million or more people, cities as a whole grew by 1.1% from 2010 to 2011, while suburbs increased 0.9%. That's a big change from the last decade, in which suburbs expanded at triple the rate of cities.
"This can really be seen as a milestone," said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who analyzed the census data to be released Thursday. "What's significant about it is that it's pervasive across the country."
Cities are retaining more residents, especially young people, as downtowns have been cleaned up and attractions have sprouted.
Chicago, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh went from significant population declines in the decade of the 2000s to growth in 2011. Los Angeles, a paragon of American sprawl, last year grew at more than double the average annual rate of the prior decade.
The shift toward cities, experts said, underscores the profound effects of the 2007-09 recession, which sharply slowed the formation of families and what had been an inexorable migration to the outer edges of the city.
"The sharp downturn in the suburban housing market has left many cities holding on to would-be suburbanites," Frey said. "I don't predict that cities will continue to dominate growth to the detriment of further suburban development. But it's certainly put the brakes on something that's been a staple in America."
Before the recession struck, the suburbs boomed during the last decade as many more people bought homes. Now, even after housing shows signs of life after the bust, credit remains tight and weak job growth has kept many people from moving.
Young people typically dominate migration activity by starting families and buying homes. But these days, many are doubling up or moving back in with their parents.
Some cities have lured young professionals with new downtown apartments, amenities and more job opportunities. Pittsburgh, for example, lost on average nearly 1% of its city population every year during the 2000s. But between 2010 and 2011, the city eked out growth of 0.2%. Pittsburgh's suburban stretches grew by just 0.1%.
Other Northern cities, such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia, saw faster growth last year than in the prior decade. And while cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis continued to lose population in 2011, the decline was much less dramatic than in previous years.
The increase in the cities' population went hand in hand with slower growth in suburbs. Chicago's city shrank by 0.5% on average annually in the last decade, while its suburbs grew by nearly 1% every year. But in 2011, both Chicago's city and suburban area grew by 0.3%.
Similarly, in the Los Angeles area, the population grew at about the same rate in the city and suburban areas.
"In general, the continued malaise of the suburbs has a lot to do with the general mini-revival of cities," Frey said. "Overall, city growth is up and suburban growth is down."