University of Virginia Research Findings Indicate Cities Have Made Gains On Suburbs Since 2000 Census

April 10, 2006

April 10, 2006 — Cities are making a comeback while many suburbs are in decline according to a recent study by University of Virginia planning professors William H. Lucy and David L. Phillips. The two researchers found that the increases in per capita income and median owner-occupied housing values in 22 cities in large metropolitan areas relative to their suburbs shows improvement on their performance in the 1990s.

These findings contradict claims that slower population growth in cities after 2000 indicates cities performed better in the 1990s and have fared worse since the 2000 census.

Lucy’s and Phillips’ study includes the cities of Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Diego, Seattle, St. Louis, St. Petersburg and Tampa.

In these 22 cities per capita income increased on average from 86 percent to 89 percent of their metropolitan areas’ income from 2000 to 2004.  This reverses a trend that saw a decline in the per capita income average from 89 percent to 86 percent of metropolitan income between 1980 and 1990. Between 1990 and 2000 there was no change.

Lucy noted that the 3 percent increase in per capita income may seem small, but if the trend continues it would be 7 percent by 2010. “That’s enormous,” he said.

The largest increase was in Atlanta — 25 percent in four years. “It is more than would have been expected, but within the bounds of plausibility and consistent with the rise in median family income and housing value,” Lucy added.

The study also shows that similar upward changes occurred in median value of owner-occupied housing, which increased from 83.7 percent in 2000 to 86.4 percent in 2004 of metropolitan housing values.

Lucy and Phillips based their findings on data released by the U.S. Bureau of the Census’s American Community Survey. The U.S. Bureau of Census compiles data on income and housing every 10 years in the Decennial Census or official census. The American Community Survey is a new nationwide survey designed to provide communities a fresh look each year at how they are changing. So far, the timely information is for most central cities with populations of 250,000 or more.

The comparisons between cities and metropolitan areas were created for the study by dividing the city data by the metropolitan data. For example, if per capita income in the city is $20,000 and its metropolitan area per capita income is $30,000, then city per capita income is 67 percent of metropolitan income. By following trends for income and housing value data, the researchers determined whether a city is competing more or less effectively with suburban areas for households that moved.

Lucy believes that results of the American Community Survey allow for a clearer picture of what is happening in the cities relative to the suburbs than the 10-year census studies, which are too far apart. “Almost 50 percent of the population moves within five years,” he said.

When Lucy and Phillips looked at income trends for families, they discovered a different story: The 22 cities experienced a slight decline from 76 percent in 2000 to 75 percent in 2004 for median family income relative to metropolitan income.

The findings suggest that cities were more successful in attracting non-family households, a finding that is backed up by the construction of substantial numbers of owner-occupied condominiums in many of these cities, which are attractive to singles, empty-nester households and the baby boom generation.

The findings also show that median owner-occupied housing value and per capita income both increased in 11 cities and decreased in four. Relative per capita income increases of three percent or more occurred in nine cities—Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Miami, St. Louis, St. Petersburg, and Tampa—between 2000 and 2004, compared with decreases of three percent or more in two cities—Philadelphia and Sacramento. Median owner-occupied housing value increased by three percent or more in nine cities — Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Seattle and Tampa — and decreased by more than three percent in two cities — Buffalo and Dallas.

The recent data confirm the case for the rebirth of cities made by Lucy and Phillips in their book “Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs,” published this spring by the American Planning Association. The research findings in the book cover 35 cities and were based on data from the 2000 census.

Lucy is the Lawrence Lewis Jr. Professor of Architecture and Planning and Phillips is an associate professor of urban and environmental planning, both in U.Va.’s School of Architecture.

For more information contact William Lucy at (434) 924-4779, (434) 295-4453 or

The study and five tables of data are available in pdf format click here.

Table 1 — Cities Above and Below Metropolitan Median Incomes, 1970 to 2000


Table 2 — Cities Above and Below Metropolitan Median Family Income by Population Size, 2000

Table 3 — City Per Capita Income as Percent of Metropolitan Per Capita Income

Table 4 — Median Value Owner-Occupied Housing

Table 5 — Condominium, Downtown Population and Per Capita Income Change

Table 6 — City Median Family Income as Percent of Metropolitan Median Family Income

An overview of City and Suburban Decline and Revival, which includes conclusions from “Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs,”is available click here.