What U.S. Population Trends From the 2000s Tell Us About the Future

The metro areas that saw the greatest slowdown in the previous decades were the ones that saw the biggest booms in the 1990s.

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Brookings Institution

Urban populations in U.S. cities boomed in the 1960s, but then declined throughout the '70s and rose only slightly in the '80s. The 1990s then saw a huge increase in metropolitan population, especially in the Sun Belt. Both suburban areas and large cities experienced major increases in population throughout this decade, which seemed to lay the groundwork for continued urban growth in the 2000s. But as a new report from demographer William Frey at the Brookings Institution shows, the trend didn't continue as expected:

From a national standpoint, large metropolitan areas, cities, and their suburbs grew less rapidly than in the 1990s. Volatile economic and non-economic forces triggered sharp geographic and temporal growth variations. Beginning with a modest recession at the end of the so-called “dot com” bust, the decade continued with a huge housing bubble prompted by easy credit and uncommon growth in selected parts of the country. Then the decade ended with a double whammy: a financial crisis that led to the near collapse of the housing market and a severe nationwide recession. Interspersed among these events, the 9/11 terrorist attack and Hurricane Katrina each had localized impacts on population shifts.

While suburban and exurban areas saw a boom and bust cycle, Frey finds, cities and dense inner suburbs saw continued, if calm, growth overall.

Large metropolitan areas have outpaced growth in smaller metros and non-metros every decade since the '80s. Though growth was down in the '00s compared to the '90s, large metros still grew more than smaller metros, at 10.9 percent compared to 10.3 percent.

The figure below shows how growth rates have changed regionally. The South and the West have driven much of the growth in major U.S. cities in recent decades, despite being down slightly over the past decade. Frey estimates that these areas will continue to see high growth rates in the near future.

Overall, growth slowed in U.S. metro areas in the most recent decade. Sixty-nine of the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. saw slower growth rates in the 2000s than in the 1990s. Many metros in the South and the West grew slower in the 2000s than in the 1980s as well. As the report notes, the areas that saw the greatest slowdown in the 2000s were the ones that saw the biggest boom in the 1990s – places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver and Atlanta.

Among the largest metropolitan areas, suburbs have been driving more growth than cities in both the '90s and '00s. Suburbs in more than 80 of the top 100 metros grew faster than their principal cities during both decades. This trend is also seen nationwide.

Despite the calamitous ups and downs of the housing market and economy in the 2000s, Frey expects most of the underlying trends – suburban growth, Sun Belt dominance – to continue. But the conditions that drove that growth – especially the now-busted housing boom – won't.

The areas of the country that have done the best to survive the rocky economic finish of the 2000s – Texas, some parts of the Sun Belt, and some cities—are quite different than the “bubble areas” that led growth during mid decade.

Exactly how U.S. population growth occurs over the next decade is hard to predict, but it's almost certain to be dramatically different than what has most recently occurred.

Figures: Brookings Institution

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.