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Associated Press
The Fox River flows into Oswego, Ill., an hour west of Chicago. New data show exurbs on the decline.

Exurb migration trend reversing, data show

– Living in an outlying Chicago suburb, Jeff Wehrli recalls a heady time not too long ago when city dwellers poured in and developers couldn’t build McMansions fast enough. Now boom has turned to bust, as in many of the nation’s “exurbs,” and Wehrli can’t help but wonder when, or whether, things will turn around.

All across the U.S., residential exurbs that sprouted on the edge of metropolitan areas are seeing their growth fizzle, according to new 2011 census estimates released Thursday.

Gas prices are discouraging long commutes. Young singles prefer city apartments. Two years after the recession technically ended, and despite some signs of economic recovery, there’s a reversal of urbanites’ decades-long exodus to roomy homes in distant towns. Indeed, Americans are shunning any moves at all – the lowest rate in records going back to the 1940s.

The annual rate of growth in American cities and surrounding urban areas has now surpassed that of exurbs for the first time in at least 20 years, spanning the most recent era of sprawling suburban development.

For instance, in Wehrli’s Kendall County, Ill., about 50 miles southwest of Chicago, the population had more than doubled to 116,000 over the past decade, making it the nation’s fastest-growing county from 2000 to 2010.

By late in the decade, however, the county’s growth had begun to wane amid recession and rising gasoline costs. In 2011, Kendall County’s growth stalled at 1 percent, dropping its rate rank to 236th.

“It’s going to take awhile,” Wehrli said, speaking of a local recovery that he acknowledges will never reach the same levels as the previous decade.

It’s not just his county. Economists believe the effects of an exurban bust will be long term.

“The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us,” Yale economist Robert J. Shiller said. Shiller, co-creator of a Standard & Poor’s housing index, identified the risks of a U.S. housing bubble before it actually burst in 2006-07.

“Suburban housing prices may not recover in our lifetime,” Shiller said, calling the development of suburbs since 1950 “unusual,” enabled by the rise of the automobile and the nation’s highway system.