It’s Official: Older Cities Take a Beating in the Latest U.S. Census

Abandoned housing stock in Flint, MI
2009 street scene in Flint, Michigan.

While there’s been evidence of significant shifts in U.S. population growth over the past decade, the decennial census performed earlier this year gives us an opportunity to learn precisely what’s been happening and end some of the “speculation.”

And now, with the U.S. Census Bureau releasing its preliminary population reports, we’re seeing how this has played out in cities across the country. While it’s true that the American population has grown pretty steadily at about 2.5 million people per year, some areas have grown much faster than others as a result of being better positioned through the education of their workforce and/or their business- and technology-friendly environments.

Alas, other areas haven’t merely stagnated, but actually lost residents because of failing industries and unattractive business climates, sparking net out-migration of their residents.

Interestingly, many of the cities in the “industrial heartland” of America have managed to stay on the positive side of population growth – even if just barely. But some cities have experienced such hardship that their populations have dropped dramatically in the past decade.

New Orleans tops the list … and who’s surprised about that? After all, Hurricane Katrina effectively robbed the city of one-third of its residents – with most of them electing not to return after establishing new livelihoods in Houston, Shreveport, and other localities further yon.

But New Orleans surely represents a “special case” if ever there was one. Other cities have suffered greatly due to their dependence on industries that took a beating over the past decade. And really, any city with a major focus on traditional manufacturing saw thousands of jobs disappear.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census report on the nation’s largest cities — ones with 100,000+ population — the seven experiencing the biggest percentage declines in population over the past decade are:

1. New Orleans, LA – Dropped by ~129,000 to ~355,000 (-27%)
2. Flint, MI – Declined by ~13,000 to ~112,000 (-11%)
3. Cleveland, OH – Fell by ~45,000 to ~431,000 (-10%)
4. Buffalo, NY – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~270,000 (-8%)
5. Dayton, OH – Declined by ~12,000 to ~154,000 (-7%)
6. Pittsburgh, PA – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~312,000 (-7%)
7. Rochester, NY – Declined by ~12,000 to ~207,000 (-6%)

[I was a bit surprised to see Detroit missing from this list. After all, it’s the poster child for urban decay and depopulation. But Detroit’s population percentage decline was actually smaller than the cities above, and it remains the nation’s 11th largest city. However, the 2010 census will likely show that its population has fallen below 800,000 for the first time in nearly a century – and the figure is even more startling when you realize the city’s population was nearly 2 million as late as the 1950 census.]

Unfortunately, the negative implication of population declines in these proud American cities go far beyond the loss of social prestige and political clout.

Once decline sets in, it can go on for years. The loss of residents contributes to a drop in tax receipts and the subsequent curtailing of social services ranging from police and sanitation to schools and recreation. Home vacancy rates say volumes about the precarious position in which the cities above find themselves – they’re above 15% in every single case (and sometimes dramatically higher).

Confronted with such a reality, too often the result is more people fleeing the urban core, creating a continuing downward spiral that seemingly has no bottom. Representative examples of where this sorry state of affairs can end up can be found in two smaller but particularly grim urban communities: Camden, NJ and Chester, PA.

From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to accept these population reports … and it seems like people should step in and do something – anything – to arrest the decline.

And in the abstract, it’s only natural to feel that this is what should happen. But in the “real world,” who are going to be the ones to step up to the plate and expose themselves (and their families) to the harsh reality of urban pioneering?

Would I do it? Would you?

For most of us, the answer to that question falls into the “life’s too short” category.

Joel Kotkin: America’s Best Years Are Still Ahead

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel KotkinIn the study of demographics – a field that has had its share of doomsayers over the years – the irrepressible Joel Kotkin has been a continuing voice of optimism. The Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and an authority on economic, political and social trends as well as demographics, Kotkin has also been one to defend suburbia as one of the key ingredients of successful urban development.

It’s been interesting to watch how these views have played out in relation to the predilection of many in the American elite to denigrate anything pertaining to the suburban lifestyle. In their characterization, “suburbia” is synonymous with faceless neighborhoods punctuated by numbingly similar commercial strip developments featuring cookie-cutter national chain stores and restaurants. The only difference between suburban Los Angeles and suburban Chicago is the palm trees.

The suburban mindset has also been maligned by many as being obsessed with material pursuits and economic upward mobility … and possessing little if any thinking that’s “progressive.”

As an example of this side of the debate, the publication of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class – with its claims that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of high-tech employees, artists, musicians and gay people correlate to a higher level of economic development – articulates a theory that has been far better received by the news media and other members of the American intelligentsia.

Now, along comes Kotkin’s newest book … and with it his latest intriguing predictions. In The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Kotkin argues that the coming 40 years will witness a resurgent America, even as the population swells by another 100 million souls. Comparing the birth rates of America to all other developed nations, along with the continued in-migration of people from other countries – particular Asian and Latin American – Kotkin contends that no other country anywhere will enjoy such ethnic diversity. And to Kotkin, youth and diversity equate with strength.

By contrast, Kotkin maintains that “most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old-age homes.” Many of these nations, with their generous social safety nets, will face huge pension obligations without having younger workers to help shoulder the costs.

Kotkin’s bottom-line prediction is that Europe and Asia will decline even as America thrives. And not just economically but also culturally: “The most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history.”

Kotkin also believes that the large new numbers of Americans will flock to – where else – the suburbs, which he characterizes as “the best, most practical choice for raising their families and enjoying the benefits of community.”

No doubt, there will be those who question Mr. Kotkin’s conclusions and predictions. What about the rise of China? How will illegal versus legal immigration affect social and economic trends? How about the widening gulf between the earning power of “technocrats” and the rest of the population? Not to mention the collapse of the family unit which has rendered so much of the fabric of “inner-urban” America dysfunctional at best … hopeless at worst?

Either way, this book is very interesting and helps us reappraise some of the “big trends” in social demography. The theories of Richard Florida’s “creative class” ring decidedly less compelling today, barely six or seven years on. It’s time now to consider Joel Kotkin’s interesting theories — with the same critical eye, of course.