Older Cities Hold On to More People, Census Shows

Newly released U.S. Census Bureau population data for U.S. cities show a new twist on a well-known theme that could be good news for older cities hoping to reverse population declines of the past.

The familiar part of the report indicates that most of the nation’s fastest growing cities are located in the South and interior West. Places like McKinney, TX; North Las Vegas, NV; and Cary, NC, are registering growth rates that cities in baseball’s “American League Central” division (e.g., Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City) can only dream about. But the new estimates also show a clear retrenchment of the old “Snowbelt to Sunbelt” population surge, a turnaround that has brought modest gains to many older and coastal cities that lost population earlier in the decade.

Population trends in the nation’s nine largest cities (those with over one million residents) offer a glimpse at the story (Table 1). Three of these—Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego—flipped from population declines to gains in the past year, while their more high-flying sunbelt counterparts—Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas—showed reduced levels of growth. The growth slowdowns in Houston and Phoenix were substantial, while at the same time, Chicago’s modest gain was the first registered since 2001. Another notable flip occurred in Boston, which last year became the fastest growing city in the Northeast, after losing population the year before.

These big city changes are emblematic of broader shifts that coincide with the housing market slowdown, which had just started to emerge toward the end of this reporting period (July 2007). Older and coastal cities are retaining more residents who in the past tended to move to the suburbs and faster growing regions. The rapid run-up in gas prices and commuting costs over the past year, not yet reflected in these statistics, could further accelerate the trend.

Beyond the very largest cities, the Midwest is showing positive signs of city population retention. Thirty of its 44 cities with populations exceeding 100,000 either gained more or lost fewer people in 2006–2007 than the year before. In addition to Chicago, the cities of St. Paul, MN; Green Bay, WI; Kansas City, KS; Grand Rapids, MI; and Warren, MI flipped from decline to growth. Wichita, KS, the region’s fastest growing larger city, doubled its growth rate, and Minneapolis, MN and Fort Wayne, IN registered noticeable growth rate increases. Although 12 Midwestern cities continued to lose population, five of these slowed their rate of decline over the prior year.

On the other side of the coin, several Southern cities showed substantial growth slowdowns, with those in Florida and Texas taking the greatest hits. Between 2005–2006 and 2006–2007, Miami’s growth rate slowed from 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent, Orlando’s was halved (from 3.9 percent to 1.9 percent), and Tampa’s slid by two-thirds (from 2.3 percent to 0.8 percent). In fact, all but two of Florida’s 18 cities showed reduced population growth or faster declines. Even highly ranked Port St. Lucie saw its growth level reduced by one-third. While growth declines were not as pervasive in Texas, Houston’s growth rate fell from 4.5 percent to 1.8 percent, (due in part to the departure of Katrina evacuees) and gains also slowed in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth, along with more than half of other cities in the state.

A bright spot for city growth in the South was Atlanta, one of the region’s oldest cities, which experienced an annual increase of 4.1 percent, its largest this decade. The city with the highest growth rate (13.8 percent) was New Orleans, though this primarily reflected residents returning to the city after the initial effects of Hurricane Katrina. Overall, however, about two-thirds of southern cities with populations over 100,000 showed reduced rates of population growth or faster rates of population decline, putting a damper on what has to date been a successful decade for the region.

The housing slowdown has yielded a split personality within the West. Greatest declines in growth rates are shown for formerly high flying centers in Arizona and Nevada, with Phoenix, Las Vegas, Reno and smaller cities in those states growing at considerably slower rates. The “winners” from these trends tended to be on the coast. In addition to growth turnarounds in Los Angeles and San Diego, a majority of smaller cities near the southern California coast showed greater gains and reduced losses due to housing problems in the interior west.

Housing market dynamics and continued economic growth farther up the Pacific coast fostered growth in cities including San Francisco (which registered its highest growth rate this decade), Portland, OR, and Seattle. And while located in the interior West, Denver’s continued growth signaled its immunity from slowdowns in nearby states, as it perhaps retained would-be movers to its outer suburbs.

In a year when people apparently did not migrate in droves to the Sunbelt or the suburbs, most Northeastern cities also showed stronger retention of their populations. In addition to the turnaround in Boston, several smaller cities in the region increased their growth rates in the last year. These include Newark, NJ, the region’s second-fastest growing city, as well as Lowell, MA, and the Connecticut cities of Stamford, Waterbury, and New Haven. And similar to many Midwestern cities that showed reduced population declines, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse registered smaller losses than in previous years. New York City continued to grow but at a somewhat reduced rate, perhaps attributable to slowdowns in gentrification-related movement to the outer boroughs owing to the more difficult mortgage market.

Of course, one year does not fundamentally alter the long-standing, dominant American trends of suburbanization and movement southward. Yet the new city population estimates show something of a reprieve for many older and coastal cities that had lost residents—including young families, empty nesters, and retirees—to their suburbs and the white-hot migration magnets of the South and West in the early to mid-2000s. Most Sunbelt cities, while still growing, now have to adjust to a less frenetic pace of population turnover and gain. There is a good likelihood that the more established cities will continue to benefit from this migration slowdown, especially if the housing market stays cool and the cost of commuting from the suburbs climbs even higher. 

Related Materials 
Figure 1: Annual Population Changes in Big Cities with Growth Rebounds, 2000-2007 » 
Figure 2: Annual Population Changes in Big Cities with Growth Slowdowns, 2000-2007 » 
Table 1: Annual Rates of Population Change, U.S. Cities with more than 1 million Residents, 2000-2007 » 
Table 2: Annual Rates of Population Change for U.S. Cities with at least 250,000 Residents, by Region, 2000-2007 »