We are growing in different ways, and if it keeps up, the trend could influence development, housing and business decisions for decades to come.
That sweeping statement comes courtesy of a U.S. Census analysis unveiled Thursday that reveals an upheaval in old-school population growth patterns.
Half of the 50 fastest growing metro areas from 2000 to 2010 slowed way down in the past couple of years. The changes are driven by:
• Demographics, notably the aging of baby boomers.
• The game-changing severity of the recession.
• Rising gasoline prices.
• A schizophrenic political debate that paints two extremely different paths for this country.
• And perhaps a reset in U.S. consumer confidence and a rethink of the so-called American Dream.
The new census findings are broad and still being interpreted by demographic experts. In many ways, the findings show people are staying put more than ever, more for economic reasons and the inability to sell their homes in the housing bust. But a few larger trends are emerging.
The appeal of sprawl — the desire to live in supposedly cheaper, larger homes on the far outskirts of metro areas, a hallmark of Florida's cheap-and-easy growth history — is waning. "Exurbs" — commuter towns and housing built beyond the suburbs of metro areas — are already seeing big falloffs in populations, especially as gas prices hover near $4 a gallon and make longer commutes especially painful.
The census findings raise questions for Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Polk and Manatee counties that traditionally tried to leverage their proximity to more urban Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. These counties have pitched themselves as less expensive, less hectic places to live, and less pricey places for businesses to expand.
But for the first time in at least 20 years, the annual rate of growth in American cities and surrounding urban areas has surpassed that of exurbs.
"The exurbs were the cutting edge of growth in the United States in the boom period," Brookings Institution demographer William Frey told the New York Times. "That growth has really come to a standstill, and is maybe being given up for dead at this point."
Indeed, there's a good reason that many vacant or half-built housing developments on the fringes of Tampa Bay now bear a recently acquired nickname: Zombie subdivisions. Some are dead but do not yet know it.
Implications abound, if these recent census trends take hold. For Tampa Bay, population growth increasingly will concentrate closer to the downtowns of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and other area towns. Older people will seek more walkable living opportunities. And so will younger adults, especially as they delay (or skip) marriage and children, rent instead of buy, and increasingly spurn car ownership for economic and environmental reasons.
Experts warn major roads once drivable for free will increasingly depend on tolls to help cover their infrastructure expenses. Florida's top transportation official, Ananth Prasad, on Wednesday said even the Howard Frankland Bridge that links Pinellas and Hillsborough counties may become a toll road one day to help cover road expenses in lean times.
There are good reasons the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa are placing so much emphasis on revival and making themselves more residential- and entertainment-friendly. Time-sensitive people want to be close to jobs, homes, entertainment, medical and other services. (That explains, in part, Tampa's steady whispering about a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium in the Channelside district. It's another downtown draw.)
It's all about staying competitive as a metro area. If our downtowns are not perceived as attractive places for new jobs to concentrate and people to live and play, more folks will look elsewhere or choose not to come here in the first place.
This is why Tampa Bay needs to get a grip on some kind of mass transit system that is good enough to make this area attractive in the future but affordable enough for even tax-weary voters to accept. Increasingly, young and mobile adults see mass transit as a must.
The new census analysis shows many places that were red-hot growth areas have since cooled while others are warming.
For example, Palm Coast, located on Florida's Atlantic coast north of Daytona Beach, was the nation's fastest-growing metro area between 2000 and 2010. But it fell to 55th place between 2010 and 2011, the period analyzed in the latest Census Bureau report.
Similarly, the population of Cape Coral-Fort Myers rose 21 percent from 2003 to 2007, making it the fastest growing big metro area. But it ranked 45th from 2007 to 2011.
One Florida surprise is Sumter County's The Villages — which calls itself "Florida's friendliest retirement hometown." A popular and sympathetic site for conservative political candidates to visit, The Villages was the second-fastest-growing "micro area" (with a core population under 50,000) in the entire nation between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2011. The Villages' population grew 4.6 percent during that time, right behind No. 1 Williston, N.D., at 8.8 percent.
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith attributes The Villages boom to retirees in search of affordable and age-friendly places to live.
It's too soon to say whether these growth shifts are here to stay or likely to moderate as the economy strengthens. Florida's never exactly been a frontrunner when it comes to reassessing its growth strategies, but it is improving.
At the least, trends in the latest census numbers suggest a vigorous rethink is overdue.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com.