Here’s what could really shift the future of American cities away from San Francisco, New York, and Boston

You could choke a horse on the Internet with lists about the “best city” or the “future city” of America — Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City and others have all topped different lists — and now there’s a new study out on youth population, but not really “youth” as in 23 year-olds — no, youth as in early teenagers. Here’s the methodology:

Using the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, Cox looked at the under 14 populations of the nation’s 51 metropolitan statistical areas with over a million residents, and also traced the changing numbers in this age group since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007. Finally he broke down each of these metro areas between their core cities and suburbs to determine where within the region children are the most predominant.

Alright, so … we’re basically going to look at the 51 biggest cities in America and see where the children are and how that’s shifted in the past six-seven years. Got it.

If you do it this way, the four cities with the largest populations of “youth” are, in order: Salt Lake City, Houston, Dallas, and Riverside (CA). The most interesting thing, probably, is that as children age, parents increasingly head to the suburbs. Among these 51 cities, 23.9 million under-14 kids live in the burbs; only 8.6 million live in the core cities. That might not surprise some — parents have always looked for more space when they have children, and that’s easier to come by outside a major city as opposed to within it (I didn’t think the discrepancy in number would be that large, but … what do I know?). Should also be noted that most of the fastest-growing counties in America are suburbs.

There are some key observations that are obvious on face — people have more children in economically-viable areas with affordable housing, for example (Houston would be the definition of such a community within the U.S. right now, I’d argue), and then there’s this, about density:

Correspondingly, expansion in the number of families and children has been occurring overwhelmingly in less dense areas. The fastest growth in the under 14 population since 2007 has been almost entirely in what can be described as heavily suburbanized low-density areas, led by greater New Orleans, Raleigh, San Antonio, Charlotte, Nashville, and Houston. In contrast, the biggest drop off in the number of children has been in metropolitan areas with higher urban densities, with the most dense, Los Angeles, also suffering the largest decline. The 10 metropolitan areas with the largest declines in their youth populations had urban densities averaging 45 percent more than the 10 with the greatest gains.

So, this all leads to an interesting place, right? For years, the focus on American cities has been the two coasts, with the possible exception of Chicago and some Texan cities. Most of America’s wealth is viewed as concentrated in the Northeast corridor, for example. But as America grows and the economy continues to shift, this could happen:

We can also anticipate the evolution of some metropolitan areas with low percentages of children — such as Boston, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles — will slow not just demographically, but also economically as younger workers look to establish families elsewhere.  This may be somewhat counterbalanced by foreign immigration, but these newcomers, particularly those without huge financial resources, are also increasingly migrating to lower-density cities.

Having children in your region certainly does not guarantee success, but without them, metro areas will face a more rapid aging of their populations and workforces, something that historically does not produce robust economies but gradual decline.

Drastic interpretation of this? The future capital of the U.S. economy will be Houston, and the new Silicon Valley will be Austin. GIRD YOUR LOINS and move to Texas now! (Or don’t.) I put a Milken Institute study on this topic — that one basically favored Salt Lake City as a place for ‘social mobility’ — on Facebook, and one of my friends noted that she had lived in 4 of the bottom 10 and loved them (as cities), but 2 of the top 10 and hated them. Point is, where you live and choose to develop a family is obviously completely contextual to you, your parents/grandparents, your job, your support networks, etc. These types of studies are just a broader framework for where the U.S. might be headed. I do honestly think the capital of American innovation could shift to Austin in the next two decades, if they get their traffic issues sorted out and find ways to expand. People that live in Houston unapologetically love it, and with immigrants, it will continue to grow; oil and gas is probably going to be a dominant industry for another 2-3 generations, so that helps. The low-density stuff — essentially, move to North Carolina if you can find a job (which is a goal of mine) — is interesting too.

Ted Bauer