Sprawl Beyond Sprawl: America Moves to Smaller Metropolitan Areas


For those interested in demographics or economic trends, domestic migration --- people moving from one county to another in the United States --- offers a critical window to the future. Domestic migration, which excludes international migration and the natural increase of births in excess of deaths, tells us much about how people are voting --- with their feet. Domestic migrants are also important because they generally arrive at their new residences with more resources than the average immigrant or newborn.

For decades, for example, people have been moving from the state of New York to just about everywhere else. In fact, since 2000, New York has bled more domestic migrants per capita than Louisiana after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. While 7.8 percent of the Empire State’s 2000 population was packing, the nation’s worst disaster (natural and man-made) drove only 7.5 percent of Louisiana’s population away.

But New York’s story is an old one. The big surprise is how smaller sized metropolitan areas are now attracting a large share of movers. For generations Americans have crowded into ever larger metropolitan areas --- including suburbs and exurbs --- but more recently they have been heading to smaller regions. You could call it “sprawl beyond sprawl.”

Overall, between 2000 and 2007, U.S. Bureau of the Census data indicates that the metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population in 2000 have lost two million domestic migrants, or 1.3 percent of their population. In contrast, smaller metropolitan areas --- those with populations between 50,000 to 1,000,000 --- gained 2.2 million domestic migrants, or 2.2 percent of their population. Smaller areas (under 50,000, including rural areas) also gained, attracting 700,000 domestic migrants, or 1.6 percent of their population.

But the real the growth is concentrated not in small towns but among the metropolitan areas between 100,000 and 500,000 population. Overall, these medium sized metropolitan areas added 1.6 million domestic migrants --- a very healthy 7.6 percent of their population.

Among the nearly 500 metropolitan areas in this category, 120 have added more five percent or more to their population through domestic migration. Seven metropolitan areas have added more than 25 percent to their population through domestic migration, including Palm Coast, FL, The Villages, FL, St. George, UT, Cape Coral, FL, Bend, OR, Ocala, FL and Prescott, AZ.

Some of these patterns may change in the short run. For example, nearly one-third of the national increase in smaller regions has been in 16 Florida metropolitan areas, which have added 700,000 domestic migrants. These areas, with only one-quarter of the Florida’s 2000 population, accounted for almost 55 percent of the state’s domestic migration gain. The latest year’s domestic migration data indicates a declining rate of increase in Florida, probably due to its over priced housing and newly higher insurance costs.

On the other side, expect more from North Carolina, which enjoys a relatively strong economy and stable housing prices. Over the past seven years, North Carolina’s medium sized metropolitan areas gained the second largest number of domestic migrants, at 150,000. These eight areas accounted for 15 percent of the state’s population in 2000, yet captured 30 percent of the domestic migration gain.

Idaho placed third, gaining 107,000 domestic migrants, as people continued moving from coastal states inland. There’s no reason to expect this trend to slow significantly. Other states rounding out the top ten were South Carolina, Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Alabama.

Pennsylvania and Arkansas are the big surprises. Pennsylvania is the big domestic migration success story of the 2000s. The state has lost only 44,000 domestic migrants at the same time that its neighbors have lost more than 2,000,000. Pennsylvania’s mid-sized metropolitan areas have gained 65,000 domestic migrants, many of whom were fleeing the over-heated housing markets in the adjacent New York City and Washington-Baltimore areas. Arkansas reflects, at least partially, the Wal-Mart effect, with more than 50,000 domestic migrants moving to Fayetteville, which includes Bentonville and the headquarters of the world’s largest retailer.

The same trend towards smaller metropolitan areas can be seen in other states. In Utah, the medium sized metropolitan areas (Provo and St. George) have accounted for more than 160 percent of the state’s net domestic migration. In Oregon, nearly one-half of the domestic migration has been in five medium sized metropolitan areas with less than 15 percent of the state’s population in 2000. In Missouri, more than 125 percent of the domestic migration has been to three medium sized metropolitan areas, with the largest gain in Springfield.

The same pattern can be seen even in highly urbanized states. Maryland is losing domestic migrants overall, but the exurban metropolitan areas of Hagerstown, Salisbury and Lexington park managed to add more than 50,000. Another exurban success has been Colorado, where four metropolitan areas with 16 percent of the 2000 population accounted for more than 60 percent of the states domestic migration, led by Fort Collins and Greeley.

Finally, it is notable that Sioux Falls, SD and Bismarck, ND are among the medium sized metropolitan areas that are attracting so many domestic migrants. It is obvious that things are changing when more people are moving to Bismarck or Sioux Falls than to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston or Washington.

What does all this say? Clearly, the shape of America’s demography has been shifting, with a strong movement toward smaller metropolitan areas. Generally, these areas are newer, with little in the way of a traditional urban core. Many are wholly suburban. Indeed, the decentralization of the United States appears to be accelerating --- from moving to the suburbs of large metropolitan areas to moving away from large metropolitan areas altogether.

There are good reasons for this to be so, from overly costly housing, to overly stressful traffic congestion to telecommunications advances. Some argue that high gas prices and the mortgage melt-down will now reverse this trend. Although the housing slowdown likely will slow out-migration down, it is unlikely to reverse the longer-term pattern. And as for high gas prices, the 1970s energy crisis did not result in a ‘back to the city’ movement, but actually quite the opposite. And in the 1970s, we did not have the Internet, which now allows people in smaller communities access to information once limited to those living in large metropolitan areas.

Demographia Metropolitan Population & Migration 2000-2007

Demographia State Population & Migration: 2000-2007: