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Insight: Is California experiencing 'The Great Inversion'?

Anecdotally, the answer is clearly yes. But it's a little hard to say based on the data that's available. The Great Inversion is the title a new book by Alan Ehrenhalt, the longtime editor of Governing magazine and author of several insightful books about cities. (Disclosure: Ehrenhalt was my editor at Governing for 20 years.)

Ehrehalt's thesis is that American cities are becoming more like European cities, with the rich folks living at the center and the poor and working-class folks living on the edge. The book includes case studies of more than a dozen American cities but none from California.

Adding to The Great Inversion publicity was a recent, highly publicized study by William Frey, the noted demographer at the Brookings Institution, who concluded that cities grew faster in population than suburbs between 2010 and 2011. Frey's study included 51 metropolitan areas with a population above 1 million people, including California's "Big Four" metros Los Angeles, San Diego, the Bay Area, and Sacramento. Frey's implication repeated ad nauseam by urban boosters in the Northeast and Midwest is that, after 60 years of population decline, older central cities are finally adding people. And, by extension, wealth and vitality as well.

This phenomenon is clearly true in the older cities. Washington, D.C., for example has added close to 10% in population since 2000. So has Philadelphia. These population increases were unimaginable a decade ago, and the resulting vitality in city neighborhoods is palpable.

But California, as usual, is an anomaly, for several reasons: 

First, our central cities have not been losing population over the past several decades. To the contrary they've been gaining population, primarily because of immigration from other countries.

Second, unlike in the Northeastern and Midwestern cities, an increase in population does not necessarily mean an increase in wealth. New city residents in California have generally been poor immigrants living in old, high-density neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are now vital but they are not rich.

And third, California defies conventional city-suburban categorization. Yes, you can try. But it is necessarily a coarse measurement. For example, the City of Los Angeles includes some very suburban areas in the San Fernando Valley while unincorporated L.A. County includes some very urban areas in East and South L.A.

Still, some trends are obvious. Population is dramatically on the rise in places like downtown San Diego and downtown Los Angeles traditional business districts that have recently added a large number of housing units. In San Diego, the addition has come about mostly through new construction; in L.A., by converting old office buildings into lofts and apartments. The results are significant. The population of Downtown L.A. has grown from about 10,000 to about 50,000 in the last 10 years. 

It's fashionable to pooh-pooh the downtown numbers as statistically insignificant. At least in L.A.'s case, they're not. The population of the entire City of L.A. approaching 4 million residents at this point has grown by a little over 100,000 in the last decade. And somewhere between a third and half of that growth has occurred downtown. In a metro area of more than 15 million people, an increase of 40,000 might seem like a drop in the bucket. But when concentrated a small, job-rich and transit-rich area, it can make a huge difference in the way the region functions.

Larger population trends suggest that most of California's big cities are at least holding their own in terms of population. And one thing that you can say about California's big cities is that they are far older and more urban than their suburban counterparts.

For example, in the 2010 census, California counted 18 cities with a population of 200,000 or more a pretty good definition of a big city. With the exception of Irvine, virtually all of them are older, gritty cities including both recent cities to declare bankruptcy, Stockton (population 292,000 in 2010) and San Bernardino (population 210,000). Not all of these cities showed significant population gains between 2000 and 2010 Santa Ana lost population (suggesting a leveling off of Latin American immigration) as did Oakland. Long Beach held even. Anaheim and Los Angeles showed modest gains. Only Irvine, Chula Vista, and inland cities saw significant increases. For a lot of these cities, the decennial numbers hide a big run-up in population in the first half of the decade because of the housing boom, followed by a significant decline in the second half of the decade after the bust.

But for the period 2010-2011 when Frey identified the overall trend nationwide virtually all of these cities mirrored the national trend. Of the 18 cities in California with a population of more than 200,000, 15 grew faster than the state average a remarkable feat in a state where population growth has been predominantly suburban for 70 years. The only three that grew slower than the state average were San Francisco (which still added 7,500 people), Los Angeles (which added 23,000), and Long Beach (which added 3,000). 

In fact, even though overall state population growth in 2010-2011 was less than historic levels, all large and, for that matter, medium-sized cities gained population. The largest city in the state with a stagnant population for the year was Eureka in Mendocino County, which lost exactly one of its 27,318 residents. The largest city with a noticeable population loss was Susanville, in Lassen County, which lost close to 300 residents out of a population of about 17,700.

Indeed, if there is a larger trend here, it is that the small cities are the ones losing ground in the California population competition these days. California cities below 50,000 and especially those below 25,000 are adding population at less than one-tenth the rate of larger cities. 

Of course, none of these statistics can quantify the quality of urban life and whether it's getting better for California city residents, whether affluent or poor. But one thing is clear: in keeping with the national trend, Californians are increasingly choosing to live in cities and especially in large cities. The bucolic suburb no longer appears to be the destination of choice.