Where is America growing? The answer may surprise you.

Cities are growing faster than their suburbs for the first time in recent history, and this trend applies to the country’s biggest as well as some of its smallest.

New analysis of U.S. Census data from Smart Growth America reveals that cities in small metro areas are gaining population – and most are growing faster than their suburbs. This finding reflects population trends revealed earlier this year in research from the Brookings Institution, which examined growth rates the country’s 51 largest metropolitan areas. But whereas that report looked only at large metro areas like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, Smart Growth America’s research examines what’s happening in the nation’s slightly smaller – but no less important – metro areas.

The results are surprising.

“Small metro areas’ cities are doing just as well, if not better than, big cities,” says Smart Growth America President and CEO Geoffrey Anderson. “The trend in terms of population growth is toward city living, and that’s happening at a greater rate in our smaller metro areas and the middle of the country.”

“Many of these small cities are investing in new smart growth ideas. Clarksville, Tennessee is creating a historic downtown shopping district. Lincoln, Nebraska has a city-wide Complete Streets policy. These kinds of investments are starting to pay off, and it’s only going to continue in coming years.”

Smart Growth America calculated population change between 2010 and 2011 in 171 of the nation’s smaller metropolitan areas based on 2010 Census figures and 2011 Census estimates. Overall, 22% of the U.S. population lives in these small metro areas – more than 69 million people. Of these, 39.3%, or 27 million people, lived in the Census-defined cities of the small metro areas in 2011.

Between 2010 and 2011, 86.5% of small metro areas saw an increase in the number of people living in the city. El Paso, Texas, saw the largest growth in the city population, gaining a total of 13,687 residents. Overall, cities in the smallest metro areas (150,000-250,000 people) saw the largest increase in people within their boundaries.

Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that small metro city population growth is now outpacing growth in the suburbs. In one year, cities in the small metro areas grew in population by 0.89%. In comparison, their suburban counterparts grew by 0.67%. Though these growth rates may seem small, they can have a big impact on a small city or town.

In addition, small metro area cities are seeing more growth than big cities. 55.0% of cities in small metro areas grew at a faster rate than their suburban counterparts between 2010 and 2011. Comparatively, 51.0% of cities in large metros added population at a greater rate than their suburbs.

The top ten small metros where cities added population at a greater rate than their suburbs were:

1. Clarksville, TN-KY
2. Lexington-Fayette, KY
3. Fort Smith, AR-OK
4. Lynchburg, VA
5. Athens-Clarke County, GA
6. Lincoln, NE
7. Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL
8. Greensboro-High Point, NC
9. Bloomington, IN
10. Durham-Chapel Hill, NC

All of the cities in this top ten list grew at least 60% faster than their suburbs. In the case of Clarksville and Lexington, the city population grew at more than double the rate of the suburban population.

“When people talk about how cities are making a comeback, they often have this image of the big metropolises,” Anderson says. “They might think it’s only happening in places like Washington D.C. But that’s just not true. It’s happening everywhere.”

Click here to download “City versus suburban growth rates in small metro areas (PDF)