» A review of twenty one metropolitan areas shows that most are seeing an increasing percentage of their population growth — or a decreasing percentage of their loss — in their core counties.
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual population estimates for counties as of July 2011. These data provide significant insight into changing population trends in the United States, and the results offer considerable support for the argument that the country’s growth is moving back into its cities, at least to some degree.
National coverage of the data release focused on the fact that the data showed a significant drop in residents moving to exurban counties at the edge of metropolitan areas. The massive creation of housing at the far reaches of regions appears to have slowed to a trickle, and even the movement of the population from Northeastern and Midwest metropolitan areas to Southern and Western areas has decreased. The fastest-growing counties by numeric population change between April 2010 (when Census 2010 was completed) and July 2011 were counties that contain large central cities — Harris, Los Angeles, Maricopa, New York City (if the five boroughs are combined), and Miami-Dade.
Of 21 metropolitan areas reviewed (chosen based on their size and presence of a central city), just five saw decreases in the population of their core counties between 2010 and 2011 (Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Detroit), while two of those also saw declines for the metropolitan area as a whole (Cleveland and Detroit). Many cities that have historically had declining populations, including Philadelphia and Washington, grew quite strongly over the year-long period.
But most important was the change in growth dynamic within each of the metropolitan areas (MSAs). 14 of 21 central counties experienced an increasing percentage of their respective region’s growth compared with the period from 2000 to 2010. This means that new growth in most regions studied was more concentrated in the central county than it had been in the 2000s. For example, whereas just 3.8% of the Washington region’s population growth between 2000 and 2010 occurred in the District of Columbia itself, 13.4% of the same region’s growth between 2010 and 2011 occurred in the central city. Most extreme, perhaps, was the situation in Cook County (the central county for the Chicago region), which took in 51.3% of the region’s population growth between 2010 and 2011, while the county had declined significantly in population between 2000 and 2010.
Three of the central counties reviewed saw declines in population but as a percentage of the region’s growth, those decreases were lower than those seen in the 2000 to 2010 period, indicating improved conditions there (Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati).
The exceptions were St. Louis and Detroit, whose central counties continued to shrink faster than the surrounding metropolitan areas, and Los Angeles and Boston, whose central counties continue to grow but not as fast compared to their respective regions as they did in the 2000s.
|Changes in U.S. County Population, 2000-2010 and 2010-2011 (21 metropolitan areas)|
|Above in sixth column, blue numbers means central county(ies) with an increasing share of the total regional population; red numbers mean central county(ies) with a declining share of the total regional population. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.|
These data reinforce statistical and anecdotal evidence from cities around the country about growth patterns. The 2010 Census demonstrated that in cities across the country, downtowns experienced dramatic growth in the 2000s, even in cities that suffered from overall population losses. With county-level data now available for the period from 2010 to 2011, it appears that that growth has extended throughout many of those surrounding cities — or at least been strong enough to dilute the effects of losses elsewhere.
In addition, the apartment market, which is heavily concentrated in central cities, is experiencing record vacancies and rising prices, demonstrating increasing demand for that housing product. In the Puget Sound region, for example, three-quarters of apartments are being built in the City of Seattle and half are being constructed in or near downtown.
Finally, a study released last week by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group shows that all these people moving into American cities are doing so in part for transportation reasons. Per capita vehicle miles traveled peaked in the United States in 2004 (and in fact, total vehicle miles peaked in 2007), showing that people are traveling less by private automobile. The report documented that the decline between 2000 and 2010 was especially steep among young people, who are moving quite dramatically towards bike, transit, and walking modes. The share of 14- to 34-year-olds with no drivers licence increased from 21% in 2000 to 26% in 2010. These young people are moving away from cars for both economic and non-economic reasons — the high price of gas is of course an issue, but so is the instant communication made possible through advanced mobile phones, for instance. These changes in transportation preferences support the notion that central cities are coming back.
It is hard to know to what degree these trends are reflective of a still-recovering economy. High gas prices, mass foreclosures, and difficulty acquiring loans certainly are likely to encourage people to stay put, decreasing what is called domestic migration, or movement from one U.S. city to another. The nation’s largest cities, which generally have high rates of domestic out-migration, are mostly reliant on international immigration to grow. So if the economic situation improves, the trends affected U.S. demographics between 2010 and 2011 may no longer apply.
Nevertheless, high gas prices appear to be a fact of the future, and the growth of downtowns, which occurred in the 2000s despite the mostly good economic conditions, both indicate that more popular cities may be a future fact of life. Even so, there is still work to be done: In only about half of the metropolitan areas did growth in the core counties as a percentage of regional growth match or rise above the existing population of those core counties as a percentage of the region’s population. In places like Dallas and Houston, for example, high growth rates in the core counties were not large enough compared to those counties’ share of existing population, meaning that effectively population continues to be distributed on the whole outside of the core. This was less true in cities like New York, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, where the core county absorbed a higher percentage of regional growth than their existing population.
It should be noted that changes in populations of core counties do not always directly correspond with the performance of core cities — which is why I have included the rightmost column in the table above, showing the percentage of the core county’s population that lives in the central city (as of 2010). In some cases, county borders correspond directly with those of the central city (as in the case of New York City, New Orleans, and Baltimore, among others). In other cases, the central city is a relatively small percentage of the county population (as in the case of Miami, Atlanta, and Cleveland). Thus, while these data allow us to examine population dynamics of certain cities directly, it is inconclusive for others. Nevertheless, it is likely that the demographic situation experienced in core counties is similar to that seen in core cities. (And indeed, the trends recorded here appear to be just as valid for counties that are 100% central cities as those whose populations are primarily outside of the central city.)
The Census Bureau will release data for 2011 on central cities and neighborhood areas later in the year.
I should also say that the Census Bureau has previously released annual population estimates that diverge dramatically from the official decennial Census figures used for Congressional redistricting, which were last released for 2010 and which will next be counted for 2020. In 2009, for instance, the Bureau announced that Chicago’s population had declined by 44,000 since 2000; in 2010, it said the city had lost almost 200,000 in the previous ten years. Similarly, in 2009, the Bureau claimed that Atlanta had a population of 540,921; a year later, the city’s population had magically shrunk to 420,003. So we need to remember that these estimates are estimates.
* Both Cleveland and Detroit had both their central counties and MSAs lose population in both periods studied, and New Orleans had population loss for both central county and MSA in the 2000-2010 period. Thus, for example, Cleveland’s -86.0% from 2010 to 2011 was a relative improvement over -160.6% from 2000 to 2010, since this means that Cuyahoga County accounted for more than the region’s total loss of population in the earlier period but less than the total from 2010 to 2011 — which means population loss is spreading from the core county to the suburbs. St. Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati core counties all saw population loss in both periods while their respective regions grew, though each lost less as a percentage in the more recent period.