The first big data release from the 2020 Census in August contained some positive news about America’s biggest cities.
The biggest of them, New York, turned out to have hundreds of thousands more people than the annual population estimates made by the Census Bureau had projected. Not one of the country’s 10 largest cities lost population between 2010 and 2020, the first time that’s happened since the 1940s. All of them now have more than a million residents for the first time ever.
The top-10’s share of the U.S. population did shrink, as it has with every Census since 1930. But the decline — to 7.87% in 2020 from 7.94% of the population in 2010 — was the smallest since then.
Attaching meaning to this statistic is a little complicated. Big-city borders are arbitrary, with some encompassing vast areas, including what most of us would describe as suburbia, and others much more constricted. Four of the 10 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas (Washington, Miami, Atlanta and Boston) aren’t represented in the top 10 cities list. City borders can also change over time, although the biggest such changes affecting top-10 cities occurred long, long ago with the consolidations of Philadelphia in 1854 (the “other urban places” in the chart headline refers to the formerly unincorporated Philadelphia suburbs of Northern Liberties, Southwark and Spring Garden, which all ranked among the 10 largest one or more times from 1800 to 1850) and New York in 1898 (Brooklyn had been the country’s fourth-largest city in 1890). Membership in the top 10 can change as well; one key reason why the downward trend in the above chart flattened out in recent decades is that perennial population losers Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis fell off the list.
Then again, the boundaries of metropolitan areas — the main alternative to cities in rankings like this — are changing all the time. The White House Office of Management and Budget adjusts them every couple of years to reflect shifts in commuting patterns and occasionally redefines their very meaning. These changes usually add territory to metro areas but sometimes break them apart, as happened in 2003 when new OMB definitions split the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose metro area, at the time the nation’s fifth-largest, into six different areas, none in the top 10, and the Washington-Baltimore area, then the fourth largest, into three. Not coincidentally, the share of U.S. population accounted for by the 10 biggest metro areas fell from 31.5% in the 2000 Census to 26.1% in 2010. It was 26.4% in 2020.
The Census Bureau also divides the U.S. into urban and rural areas, with the urban share of the nation’s population increasing steadily over time, to 80.7% as of 2010 (the 2020 numbers aren’t out yet). But its definition of urban casts an awfully wide net, including every settlement of 2,500 people or more and is subject to change from time to time (the 2,500 is about to be upped to 10,000, for example).
All of which is a long way of saying that while the population of the 10 largest cities is a flawed measure of urbanization in the U.S., all the other measures are flawed too — and the top-10-city total, available all the way back to 1790, conveys some useful pieces of information. One is that, as already mentioned, the 2010s were not a decade of urban decline. The 10 biggest cities added 1.6 million residents, the third biggest such gain since 1930.
This wasn’t about growing cities replacing shrinking ones on the list: Apart from Phoenix and Philadelphia swapping places (to fifth and sixth, respectively, in 2020), the top 10 remained unchanged.
The era of big-city decline that began in the 1930s and really took off as the U.S. suburbanized after 1950 thus seems to have pretty definitively ended. Again, this is partly due to the rise of the sprawling new-style cities of the Sun Belt, but lots of older cities returned to growth as well. On the top-10 list, former-population losers New York, Chicago and Philadelphia all grew in the 2010s, and further down the list, the former top-10 cities Boston, Buffalo, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Washington added residents too.
Still, that long era of decline left its mark. The 10 biggest U.S. cities, while large and growing, now account for less than 7.9% of the country’s population. London alone houses 13.4% of the U.K. population, Toronto 7.9% of Canada’s. In 1930 and 1940, 5.6% of Americans lived in New York City (it was 2.7% in 2020).
The modern U.S. is thus a decentralized nation, where despite an urban revival in recent years the periphery has kept growing faster than the center. Rural areas aren’t growing; most American counties actually lost population in the 2010s. But low-density suburban counties attached to large metropolitan areas grew faster than either high-density suburbs or urban counties, economist Jed Kolko calculated recently, while the fastest-growing major metro areas (Austin, Orlando, Raleigh, Nashville) aren’t among the largest.
This is a little hard to square with claims that large cities continue to wield great political clout. If it weren’t for the Electoral College, according to one oft-heard argument, voters in New York, Los Angeles and/or Chicago would choose every president. How they would manage to do this with only 4.7% of the nation’s population is a bit of a mystery. True, the three cities’ metro-area populations added up to 13% of the U.S. total in 2020, but that was down from 13.3% in 2010 and traditionally suburbs and cities largely canceled each other out politically — although that has been changing lately.
There’s a stronger argument to be made that economic power and cultural clout remain concentrated in a few places. Gross domestic product grew more slowly in the 10 largest metro areas than the country as a whole from 2010 to 2019 (2020 data aren’t out yet), but per-capita personal income grew faster. New York still dominates finance and the news media, Washington dominates government, Los Angeles rules entertainment and San Jose and San Francisco technology.
Or at least that’s the history. The great dispersal brought on by the pandemic and the subsequent turn to remote work threatens this status quo — and it isn’t really reflected in the Census data, which is supposed to count people in their permanent place of residence only as of April 2020, which was about when the pandemic really got rolling. Even if these developments don’t spell doom for big cities, they pose challenges. Then again, big U.S. cities have faced some awfully big challenges over the past century and they’re still standing.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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