Many Major Cities Gain Population Faster Than The Rest Of Their Metro Areas

Quick Summary

Recent Census data shows that America's largest cities are growing more rapidly than their surrounding regions, and the nation as a whole.


Many of the nation's largest cities have been growing more rapidly than the rest of their regions and the nation as a whole, breaking a longstanding pattern, according to an analysis of the most recent Census data by the Pew American Cities Project.

Growth—and Decline

The Pew project focuses on the largest city in each of the 30 most populous metropolitan areas. Of those cities, 13 grew more rapidly than their surrounding regions between April 2010 and July 2011. Those cities are Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Riverside (CA), Seattle, Tampa, and Washington, D.C.   In contrast, between 2000 and 2010, only one of the cities—Boston—gained population at a faster rate than the rest of its metropolitan area.

Seven of the 30 cities—Chicago, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland (OR), Sacramento, San Antonio and San Diego—grew at nearly identical rates with their suburbs during the 15-month period covered by the latest Census population estimates.

Five others grew more slowly than the rest of their regions: Dallas, Houston, Kansas City (MO), Los Angeles, and San Francisco. And five lost population: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis.

The fastest-growing cities were mostly in the South and West, as has been the case for several decades. Denver grew the most in percentage terms, followed by Tampa, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and San Antonio.

That many of the nation's largest cities are growing is not a new phenomenon. What is striking is the magnitude of that growth, relative not only to the suburbs but also to the rest of the country.

Between 2000 and 2010, the largest cities in the 30 most populous metropolitan areas as a group grew at about one-sixth the rate of the surrounding areas and about one-fourth the national rate.

Between April 2010 and July 2011, the cities actually grew more rapidly than the nation as a whole, 1.2 percent to 0.9 percent, and at about the same rate as the surrounding areas.

'Preference for an Urban Lifestyle'

A fast-growing population could have a huge impact on a city's revenues and expenditures. Depending on the social and economic characteristics of the new residents, the growth could fill or drain local coffers. (The latest Census numbers do not provide information on the age and income of the new arrivals, making it hard to say precisely how the population growth will affect the tax base or influence the demand for services.)

According to some city officials, the movement of people into their cities stems from a growing preference for an urban lifestyle and amenities among baby boomers and young adults, as well as the slowdown in construction in the suburbs.

“There are an increasing number of people in their 20s and 30s who want to live in a downtown or in places easily accessible to the downtown,” said Steve Gordon, planning services manager for Denver, which had the largest growth of any of the 30 cities during the period and grew faster than the rest of its metro area, 3.3 percent to 1.9 percent. “Young people seem drawn to places where they can live in an apartment without a car. They're very comfortable relying on public transportation.”

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, the new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, told that organization at its convention last month: “We are the place where young Americans and families want to live, work and raise their families … People are moving into cities, and they are the centers of growth in our country.”

Census estimates of the racial and ethnic makeup of the population changes are available for only a few of the 30 cities that Pew is focusing on. In Washington, D.C., the largest part of the increase was among non-Hispanic whites. In Philadelphia, Hispanics accounted for more than half of the growth. In Denver, there was substantial growth among both groups.

Whether the population shifts documented in the latest Census data are part of a long-term trend remains to be seen. The annual estimates are not as definitive as the official, decennial counts.

About the American Cities Project

The Pew American Cities Project conducts comparative research and analysis to help big cities understand and address pressing policy issues. With a focus on the largest city in each of the nation's 30 largest metropolitan areas, the project explores the fiscal challenges facing cities, the demographic changes they are experiencing, and their ability to deliver core services. The project works with policy makers at all levels of government to identify shared challenges and promising approaches.

Media Contact

Jeremy Ratner

Director, Communications