A soupcon of caution is advised when making conclusions about population trends. Three years ago, when population growth in outlying regions was outpacing areas closer to a big city, it was easy to conclude that demographic movements would give new meaning to the term “urban sprawl.”
That trend has reversed, however: Exurban growth rates are at historic lows.
We can't conclude anything from this other than the fact that right now people don't relish a long commute. What we can conclude is that suburban areas (as opposed to exurban areas) continue to attract homeowners.
Also of note is that Cherokee County, too far from Tulsa to be suburban or exurban, is growing rapidly — as is Texas County in the Panhandle, which is about as far from a big city as one can get.
Exurbs are cities that attract commuters but don't border a large central city. You generally have to drive through a suburb and into open, undeveloped country before reaching an exurb. Guthrie is an example.
The fastest-growing county in Oklahoma is Canadian County, which contains the suburb of Yukon but also the exurb of El Reno. In Tahlequah, seat of Cherokee County, folks are moving in because they want to live and work in the area rather than live there and work in Tulsa.
Sometimes the drive from suburbs is counterintuitive, such as Oklahoma State University faculty members who live in Edmond but work in Stillwater. Or University of Oklahoma faculty who live in Oklahoma City but work in Norman.
Freedom of movement is a key tenet of American life and it's especially relished around here. Only recently have grave concerns been expressed about extending Oklahoma City's urban sprawl to the woodlands of eastern Oklahoma County. The concern isn't over high gasoline prices or pollution. It's over the value of property damage incurred in wildfires.
U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the nation is growing at the slowest rate since the mid-1940s and that more people are staying put. This reverses a trend spotted in the first decade of this century, when exurbs became population magnets.
Every county but one that borders Oklahoma County gained population between 2010 and 2011, according to Census Bureau estimates. The exception is Lincoln County, whose county seat of Chandler is an easy commute to Oklahoma City but which also contains no actual suburbs. The other bordering counties are among the fastest-growing in the state.
The same holds true for Tulsa County: The two bordering counties that aren't growing contain no suburbs but do meet exurban standards.
We could conclude that current trends are welcome news for city planners, environmentalists, big-city chambers of commerce, etc. But this would be to presume that a report won't surface in two or three years showing that folks are once again filling the open spaces.
Also, concerns about sprawl can be overwrought. People ought to be able to live where they choose. Attempts to curb sprawl can drive up property values in settled areas, making them less affordable.
For now, the sprawl “problem” seems to be taking care of itself, with a dash of high gasoline prices added to the mix.