Urban Revival

Long-established trends in the growth and decline of America's cities appear to be shifting according to new Census data released Tuesday. The data cover population trends for cities -- that is, incorporated areas -- from 2000 to 2009, and also for the immediate post-economic crisis period spanning July 2008 to July 2009.

Some major cities, which had long seen population decline, registered population gains. Chicago, for example, saw its population increase by 0.8 percent, its fastest pace of the decade, while New York expanded 0.5 percent, continuing gains in recent years. Other cities, notably many Sunbelt cities that had long seen rapid growth, saw their gains slow considerably for the first time in modern memory.

More than half of all cities (19 of 34) with more than 500,000 people grew faster this year than a year ago, according to demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution. Frey and other experts told The Wall Street Journal the housing bust has caused a significant slowdown in mobility, keeping younger households from moving to the suburbs, while stemming growth in Sunbelt regions. A number of larger cities and urban areas have turned around long-run population losses and begun to see consistent, if small, gains.

The chart above compares population growth for the years 2000-2009 to the more recent 2008-2009 period for the nine U.S. cities with more than one million people. Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Dallas all had recent gains which outpaced their decade-long trend. New York City was about even across both periods. But population growth slowed considerably in Phoenix, Houston, and San Diego, and somewhat less so in San Antonio, compared to the past decade.

Here's the same kind of comparison for the 25 cities with 500,000 to one million people. Population growth accelerated considerably in Washington, D.C., Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Jose's Silicon Valley, Austin, San Francisco, Boston, El Paso, Columbus, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, and Louisville. But former Sunbelt hot-spots -- Las Vegas, Atlanta, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Jacksonville -- all posted much slower growth in 2008-2009 than for the decade as a whole. Charlotte saw some slowdown, while Nashville and Milwaukee were about even, though growth was slow in the latter across both periods. Memphis appears to have stemmed its population decline, while Baltimore and Detroit continue to lose people.

And here's how cities between 250,000 and 500,000 people fared. New Orleans saw a substantial rebound after the devastating population losses stemming from Hurricane Katrina. Population growth accelerated in Minneapolis, Oakland, and several other places. But Sunbelt cities like Henderson, Mesa, Chandler, and Miami saw substantial slowdowns. Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Cleveland continued to lose people though their rate of population loss slowed.

My own take is that this is more than a city-suburb or Sunbelt-Frostbelt story, but reflects deep and fundamental changes in America's economic geography. The past several decades have seen a complex sorting of population by class -- that is, by income, work, and human capital. America's economic geography has become spikier -- more uneven and unequal -- with deepening economic and class divides increasingly overlaid and embedded in geography. These most recent trends in population, sparked by the economic crisis, reflect the playing out of these much deeper forces.