Urban Areas Are Adding People and Gobbling Up Land in Most States
The percentage of residents living in areas the U.S. Census Bureau calls “urban” grew in 36 states between 2010 and 2020, led by booming cities and suburbs in the South, Southwest, Midwest and California, according to a new Stateline analysis.
Among urban areas with populations of at least half a million, the Texas capital city of Austin grew the fastest as more people arrived, and development intensified and spread. The Austin area’s population grew by 33%. The area also added almost 100 square miles of formerly rural land that the census now classifies as urban because of new development and population growth. As a result, Austin’s total urban area increased by 18%.
Other urban areas also experienced rapid population growth: The urban population grew by 25% in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina; 23% in Orlando, Florida; 22% in Provo-Orem, Utah; 21% in Des Moines, Iowa; 19% in Nashville-Davidson, Tennessee; 18% in Houston and in Riverside-San Bernardino, California; and 17% in Jacksonville, Florida.
“Urban growth is booming here,” said Nathan Dollar, director of Carolina Demography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Metro populations like those in the Research Triangle Area [Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill] were and are growing quickly as well as migration to coastal and mountain communities driven by retirees.”
Understanding the growth patterns of metro areas helps state and local planners develop infrastructure, from roads to schools to hospitals, to serve those ballooning regions.
Source: Stateline analysis of Census Bureau data
Note: To calculate urban growth between 2010 and 2020, Stateline applied the Census Bureau’s new population and housing unit standards retroactively to 2010.
Booming Southern cities and suburbs have attracted newcomers for a long time, creating some new tensions between urban progressives and rural conservatives in states such as Texas and Florida, and helping to turn Georgia into a swing state as Atlanta suburbs have grown and become more racially diverse.
But the Midwest also saw increased percentages in urban share. Growth in the Des Moines suburbs gave that urban area the sixth-fastest population growth and the third-fastest growth in land area nationally, behind only Austin and Charleston.
The U.S. Census Bureau adjusted its metrics in December and began defining urban areas as those with at least 5,000 residents (up from 2,500 in 2010) or 2,000 housing units. The bureau looks for areas with dense housing, at least 425 units per square mile, and adds surrounding suburbs and commercial areas.
As a result of the new metrics, 4.2 million people in 1,140 small communities once considered urban by the Census Bureau are now officially rural residents. But other federal agencies already had a broader definition of rural that included those communities for health and transportation funding purposes.
At the same time, dozens of places made the switch from rural to urban because they are vacation spots with small year-round populations that spike during certain seasons.
To measure growth in urban population and area, Stateline applied the 2020 standard to 2010 for comparison.
California, Nevada and New Jersey are the most urban states under the new census definitions, with about 94% of their residents living in such areas. Vermont (35%), Maine (39%) and West Virginia (45%) are the least urban.
The New York-Jersey City-Newark urban area remains the nation's most populous, with a count of 19.4 million. The Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area has a population of 12.2 million, and the Chicago urban area, which includes parts of Indiana, is home to 8.7 million people.
These three urban areas have been the most populous since the 1950 census, though the Los Angeles area overtook Chicago in 1960.
In addition to changing the population threshold for urban status, the census added housing units to the calculation as a nod to tourism-oriented places, such as Snowmass Village, Colorado, and Fire Island, New York, that don’t have large year-round populations but need infrastructure to support seasonal crowds.
“Our little village of 3,000 or so residents can swell to urban levels pretty quickly,” said Clint Kinney, town manager for the Town of Snowmass Village. “During ski season we can have 10,000 people skiing on the hill, which is in the town, in addition to several thousand employees and our own population.”
Some demographers questioned the change that took urban status from the 1,140 communities.
“I am not quite sure what prompted this,” said William Frey of the Brookings Institution, noting that the changes will make areas defined as “rural” larger. “Making rural areas more dense, and perhaps faster growing because of the definition change, will shift the demographic makeup of these areas.”
However, the changes bring Census Bureau definitions more into line with other federal programs that already define areas of 2,500 to 4,999 as rural, said Michael Ratcliffe, a senior adviser in the Census Bureau’s Geography Division who has written about the new definitions.
Ratcliffe said he hopes the changes will “spark further thought and discussion” about the definition of rural and urban areas and how they’re used by policy makers.
For health care funding purposes, areas of fewer than 5,000 and even larger ones up to 49,999 are considered rural by the federal Health Resources & Services Administration, said Harold Miller, president of the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, an advocacy group.
There also are federal transportation grants for rural areas to help with public transit, but they apply to any areas with fewer than 50,000 residents.
“There are other federal programs that use their own definitions, and states have their own definitions,” Miller said, noting that, for example, Pennsylvania has its own “rural health model” with different standards.
“There are a variety of programs which only apply to areas designated as ‘rural,’” Miller said. "But there are multiple definitions of ‘rural,’ and they don’t depend solely on Census Bureau designations.”