Redistricting: Big Cities Show Resilience

Population growth in America's largest cities has come close to keeping up with population growth elsewhere over the last nine years. As a result, big cities will be able retain most of their clout after redistricting updates the nation's political lines.
by | September 22, 2010

I'm working on a story about how the upcoming round of redistricting will reduce the number of seats in state legislatures located in rural areas and, in doing so, reduce the political power of rural America. But, I had a moment of trepidation today that I'm writing the wrong story.

I'm confident that population trends support the premise I just described to you. What I wondered, though, was whether the shift of population (proportionally speaking) was just as dramatic or more dramatic away from big cities as it was away from rural areas. If suburbs and exurbs are gaining population at the expense of central cities, I at least needed to acknowledge that in the story. So, I decided to find out.

First, here's the population change over the last nine years in today's 25 most populous cities.

25 Most Populous Cities

Here are cities 26-50, as well as the overall change for all of the big cities (1-50) and the change for the United States as a whole.

Cities 26-50

Maybe I don't follow demographic trends as closely as I should, but I was actually quite surprised by a lot of these numbers. Many more cities are growing than I expected.

Obviously, the Atlanta metro area has boomed over the last decade, but I had no idea that the city itself had seen a 29% increase in population. Kansas City just closed half its public schools, so I would have guessed the city is shrinking. Nope: It's actually growing faster than Missouri as whole. Charlotte is being hyped as the next great Southern metropolis, but I never would have known that Raleigh is America's fastest growing big (or biggish) city.

As for the premise of my story, I think it's fine. I expected a much bigger gap between the growth of big cities and growth of the country as a whole. The difference isn't nothing, but it also probably isn't enough for there to be some large shift in political power away from America's big cities. I do wonder (and maybe I'll check) if the numbers would have been different if I'd started with the 50 largest cities in 2000, rather than the 50 largest in 2009.

As for the politics of redistricting, Democrats will be happy that big cities are showing as much growth as they are. But, it's worth noting that the fastest growth is in the comparatively more Republican cities of the Sunbelt. Many of the most reliable Democratic bastions -- New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and San Francisco -- are growing slowly, if they're growing at all.

Of course, whether you're talking about the suburbs or the cities, the key long-term question isn't just where the growth is taking place, but also why it's taking place. Are Sunbelt cities and suburbs surging because of an influx of immigrants who are likely to (eventually) be Democratic voters? Or are they surging because conservative Southern couples tend to have more children than their liberal counterparts in the Northeast? There's certainly some of both of those things going on.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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