The Once and Future City

The head of the Governing Institute found a couple of surprises when he looked at population trends in a number of U.S. cities. Populations in big and small cities are bouncing back.
by | December 23, 2011

This blog post is a contribution from Governing Institute Director Mark Funkhouser.

Front page news in The Washington Post: "Number of District Residents Skyrockets," made me think of a couple of conversations I've had recently about the future of cities.

Alex Marshall wrote How Cities Work and is a frequent columnist for Governing. His latest book, The Surprising Design of Market Economies, is due out in 2012. He told me that cities are "in" now and urban living is cool. He said, for example, that television shows in the 50's were about prosperous folks in the suburbs and today, in shows like Friends and Seinfeld, the cool people are in the cities.

Alan Ehrenhalt, former executive editor of Governing and now with the Pew Center for the States, also has a book coming out in 2012, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. He argues that, in essence, the last 50 years was an aberration in the life of cities. Historically the wealthiest people lived in the center of the metropolitan area and the suburbs were a port of entry for newcomers, including those from other countries, and other people just moving up into the middle class.

With these thoughts in mind and with the help of Mike Maciag, Governing's Data Editor, I took a look at census numbers. Looking at every city with a population of 100,000 or more, we found a dozen for which the 2010 census figures represented the first increase after decades of decline. Leading the pack is, indeed, Washington, D.C., but I think you'll see some surprises.

City Population Peak Year 2010 Population % Increase from 2000
Washington, DC 1950 601,723 5.19
New Haven, CT 1950 129,779 4.98
Beaumont, TX 1960 118,296 3.89
Savannah, GA 1960 136,286 3.63
Norfolk, VA 1970 242,803 3.58
Bridgeport, CT 1950 144,229 3.37
Richmond, VA 1970 204,214 3.25
Hartford, CT 1950 124,775 2.63
Peoria, IL 1970 115,007 1.83
Newark, NJ 1930 277,140 1.31
Springfield, MA 1960 153,060 0.64
Philadelphia, PA 1950 1,526,006 0.56

The reasons these cities broke decades of decline and began to grow again are probably as varied and unique as the cities themselves, but I think a careful review would find some common themes.

The growth was probably not spurred by "cookie-cutter" development schemes and incentives to lure corporations. Those things have all been tried by cities -- including quite likely some of these -- in previous decades and didn't work. Each of these cities was founded for a specific reason and grew over the decades because of some natural advantage that the city had.

Human beings are social animals. Even with the rise of email, Facebook and Twitter, we want to see and be seen by other people and we want to live close enough to interact easily with others. People will choose to do this in cities, but only so long as it is clean, safe and convenient to do so. Disorder and decay inspire fear and drive people away.

Individual cities have natural strengths and smart leaders to play to those strengths. Development fads come and go but basic human nature is fairly immutable. There are reasons why people moved to your city in the first place and the same things that will bring them back if you focus on the basics.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com

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