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By Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg, USA TODAY

America's romance with sprawl may not be completely over, but it's definitely on the rocks.

Almost three years after the official end of a recession that kept people from moving and devastated new suburban subdivisions, people continue to avoid counties on the farthest edge of metropolitan areas, according to Census estimates out today.

The financial and foreclosure crisis forced more people to rent. Soaring gas prices made long commutes less appealing. And high unemployment drew more people to big job centers. As the nation crawls out of the downturn, cities and older suburbs are leading the way.

Population growth in fringe counties nearly screeched to a halt in the year that ended July 1, 2011. By comparison, counties at the core of metro areas are growing faster than the nation as a whole.

"There's a pall being cast on the outer edges," says John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit development group that promotes sustainability. "The foreclosures, the vacancies, the uncompleted roads. It's uncomfortable out there. The glitz is off."

A USA TODAY analysis shows:

• All but two of the 39 counties with 1 million-plus people - Michigan's Wayne (Detroit) and Ohio's Cuyahoga (Cleveland) - grew from 2010 to 2011.

• Twenty-eight of the big counties gained faster than the nation, which grew at the slowest rate since the Great Depression (0.73%). The counties' median growth rate was 1.3% (half grew faster, half slower).

Those 28 - including California's Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Florida's Broward and Hillsborough, Texas' Harris and Dallas - generated more than a third of the USA's growth. Before the recession and housing bust, when people flocked to new development on farmland, they contributed just 27%.

"It shows the locational advantage of being in the biggest cities," says Robert Lang, professor of urban affairs at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and author of Megapolitan America. "The core is what's left of our competitiveness as a country."

•Central metro counties accounted for 94% of U.S. growth, compared with 85% just before the recession.

"This could be the end of the exurb as a place where people aspire to go when they're starting their families," says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution. "So many people have been burned by this. ... First-time home buyers, immigrants and minorities took a real big hit."

During the '70s gas shortage and the '80s savings and loan industry crisis, some predicted the end of suburban sprawl. It didn't happen then, but current trends could change the nation's growth patterns permanently.

Aging Baby Boomers, who have begun to retire, and Millennials, who are mostly in their teens and 20s, are more inclined to live in urban areas, McIlwain says.

"I'm not sure we're going to see outward sprawl even if the urge to sprawl continues," he says. "Counties are getting to the point that they don't have the money to maintain the roads, water, sewer. ... This is a century of urbanization."

Maybe, Lang says, "sprawl is the Freddy Krueger of American development. It's always pronounced dead and yet somehow springs back to life."

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