Are Cities That Lost Population Making a Comeback?

New Census estimates suggest that many larger cities continue to see populations climb, including some that could be experiencing their first growth in years. View data for each city.
by | May 23, 2013 AT 12:00 PM

Census estimates released today signal many of the nation’s larger cities continue to see populations climb, including some that could be experiencing their first growth in years.

Much of the fastest-growing cities can be found in Texas and parts of the western United States, fueled in large part by strong local economies and rapidly expanding minority populations. More notably, though, data suggests some cities that long struggled to add residents for years may now be making a comeback.

A total of 138 incorporated places with currently more than 50,000 residents lost population in the decade ending in 2010. From July 2010 up through last summer, 90 of these same cities (or 65 percent) have since recorded population gains, a Governing analysis of the new data found. (See full list)

Some of these cities added just enough residents to register an increase, or had welcomed more residents in recent years following steep declines in the early 2000s. Others could be enjoying a more significant turnaround.

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The Census Bureau estimates Chicago added 17,000 residents (a 0.6 percent increase) between July 2010 and 2012 after shedding nearly 7 percent of its population over the prior decade. Meanwhile, Oakland, Calif., added an estimated 9,300 residents after losing about 8,700 over the previous 10 years. Memphis, Tenn., also saw its population rebound, increasing 1.2 percent over the two-year period following a decline of 5.9 percent.

Cities reversing years of population declines aren’t confined to any one area of the country. States with the most such cities, identified below, were California (18), Florida (12) and Michigan (10).

But the good news might not be cause for celebration – at least not yet.

Sources of data the Census Bureau uses to compute estimates for cities are limited, and some demographers question the reliability of the projections.

The Census Bureau’s methodology calls for multiplying a city's occupancy rates from the 2010 Census by more recent housing unit figures. Previously published 2012 county level population estimates, which consider births, deaths and migration, are then factored in, along with group quarters counts. This changed from last year, when census estimates essentially distributed population changes evenly within counties.

Ken Darga, Michigan's state demographer, said the methodology represents an improvement, but the estimates suffer from several weaknesses. Namely, there’s isn’t much variation in housing unit totals, so some cities may still be losing residents, he said. New housing units aren’t immediately filled, for instance, while other areas can add residents simply by filling large quantities of existing vacancies.

“It’s not the fault of the methodology; it’s that construction is not correlated as strongly with population as it usually is,” Darga said.

Estimates for states and counties are considered the most reliable.

With the limitations of the data, it’s difficult to conclude whether some cities are, in fact, seeing their populations rebound.

This is especially relevant in Michigan, where 19 cities with populations exceeding 50,000 lost population between 2000 and 2010. The Census Bureau estimates 10 of these localities added residents since 2010.

Patricia Becker, executive director of Southeast Michigan Census Council, suspects some of the state's cities are seeing their populations stabilize, but said it’s too early to conclude whether they’re actually growing. “Once we have solid data on the vacancy rates showing declines,” she said, “that’s when I’ll get excited.”

Nationwide, only 14 cities lost more than 1,000 residents over the two-year period, according to estimates, led by Detroit (-10,269) and Cleveland (-5,295).

Even if cities aren’t recording the increases estimates suggest, many likely put a stop to or at least slowed years of steady population losses.

Take Birmingham, Ala., which took a major hit between 2000 and 2010 as the city’s population plummeted nearly 12 percent, or Cincinnati, Ohio, where it declined 10 percent. Recent estimates indicate both cities’ counts remained virtually unchanged the past few years.

In nowhere has there been more of a reversal than New Orleans, which saw its population drop a staggering 28 percent over the decade in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city has since bounced back, increasing its population by 6 percent from July 2010 to 2012.

Overall, about half of cities, towns and villages with at least 50,000 residents saw populations jump by more than 2 percent over the two years. Here's a map showing new population growth for larger cities throughout the country, with the fastest growing shaded in dark green (open interactive map in new window):

Cities experiencing rapid growth mostly span the South and western U.S., with Texas, California, Florida and Georgia recently recording the largest gains of any state, according to previously released estimates for states.

Texas is home to 10 of the top 25 cities with the steepest growth in terms of percentage change from July 2010 to 2012, a trend that's persisted for a while.

Driving the gains are two primary factors: Jobs and increases in minority populations, particularly Hispanic children, said Steve Murdock, the former top director of the Census Bureau who now runs the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University.

Much of the upswing reflects oil and shale development in the south and western portion of the state. Midland's population rose an estimated 7.3 percent since July 2010, while nearby Odessa saw its increase 6.2 percent.

Murdock cited growth in the area stretching from Dallas down to San Antonio as particularly strong. San Marcos, one city along the corridor, registered the highest percentage increase of any U.S. city over 50,000.

“The corridor along I-35 is growing very rapidly, and most of it is very economically driven,” Murdock said, adding that he expects growth to continue for quite some time.

Minority population groups accounting for much of the increase in Texas cities bear a resemblance to what other cities across the country have experienced -- or will soon. Such families are younger than non-Hispanic whites and have higher fertility rates, so they'll likely drive growth for years to come.

“Those states that have that a diverse population with a significant proportion of Hispanics are likely to continue to be population growth centers,” said Murdock.


View updated population estimates and historical data for all cities with more than 50,000 residents on our national map.

The following table shows all 138 incorporated places that lost population from 2000 to 2010. A total of 90 of these gained population in the two-year period between July 2010 and July 2012, according to census estimates.