The State of Employment Decentralization in Major American Cities


Carson Qing

Since the mid-20th century, employers have followed its employees to the suburbs, and have adapted the workplace to fit their employees’ commuting needs, leading to the rise of the “corporate park” and the “edge city.” Some scholars have observed that in the 2000s, a dramatic shift has occurred as cities were again attracting the jobs that left in earlier decades, as employers respond to changing preferences among younger workers who desire a more urban lifestyle. Others contend that such a conclusion is premature, and that employment decentralization, also known as “job sprawl,” still occurs, as there is still high demand for suburban living. Using data on private sector employment from the Census Bureau’s Local Employment Dynamics, I tried to determine if the pattern of employment distribution across metropolitan areas had truly shifted in the past decade, and based on my findings, it seems that job distribution and movement vary by region, although generally, the trends remain slightly in favor of continued employment decentralization in major U.S. metro regions.

Metro regions with an increase in the share of its workforce employed clustered within 5 miles of the Central Business District were:

  1. San Francisco: +1.5%
  2. New York: +1.3%
  3. Detroit: +0.8%
  4. Chicago +0.2%
  5. Philadelphia +0.1%

The above cities are all older designs, where most development occurred early in the 20th century, in the pre-automobile era. Metro regions with the greatest increase in the share of its workforce employed within 20 – 50 miles of the CBD (or, “job sprawl” tendencies), were:

  1. Atlanta: +4.5%
  2. Dallas: +2.9%
  3. Houston: +2.6%

These cities are generally sprawling, Sun Belt areas that have experienced much of its growth during the late 20th century. After accounting for job trends based on distances from each region’s CBD, I observed the following patterns of employment growth (see methodology below for more detail):

Jobs in New York and San Francisco are increasingly concentrated in their urban core. In these cities, employment is no longer de-centralizing, but is re-centralizing. Both cities have a dense and diverse urban core that offer distinctive amenities and advantages for workers and employers, which could be a major driver of these recent trends.

A group of cities had an increasing share of jobs in both its urban core and its exurban fringes, but a smaller share in the “core-periphery” area: the peripheral areas of the primary city, and inner-ring suburbs that border the city. These cities exhibit a “U-shaped” relationship between the increase in the share of jobs in a given zone and the distance from the center city. One-third of the metro areas sampled exhibited this spatial pattern of job growth, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, and St. Louis.

In Houston and Dallas, employment decentralization has been sustained. Areas further from the city are capturing a greater share of the region’s jobs. This trend resembles the traditional pattern of late-20th century employment decentralization.

In general, employment decentralization has been sustained in the largest metro regions in the United States since 2002, but mostly at the expense of the “in-between” zones situated within 5 to 10 miles of the CBD, rather than the CBD itself. These generalized job growth trends show that the past decade was a period of deepening spatial divisions within U.S. cities. Overall, diverging demographic preferences and market forces are leading to an unconventional pattern of employment distribution, one that places the high-density urban core and the low-density suburban fringes at a distinct advantage over the medium-density urban periphery and inner-ring suburbs, locations that typically do not offer the agglomeration advantages of the central city, nor the accessibility advantages of the exurban fringes.

 

Methodology:

This analysis divided the 15 largest metro regions (defined as all census tracts within 50 miles of the primary city’s CBD) into 4 zones of analysis, based on distance from the city center. After calculating job growth for each of the zones and for each metro region, the data was smoothed to reflect a “best-fit” trendline. A composite average of the job growth data was also obtained and fitted to a trendline (highlighted by the red curve above). The composite average trend indicates that regional trends generally favor sustained employment decentralization, but there are distinctive variations across metro regions and the spatial patterns are more complex than anticipated.

The fitted trendlines of New York and San Francisco are negatively sloped (highlighted in yellow), which indicates that recent job growth and distance from the city center appear to be inversely related and have a highly linear pattern.

The fitted trendlines of Houston and Dallas are positively sloped (highlighted in blue), indicating that areas further from the city are capturing a greater share of the region’s jobs.

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