America's biggest metros are getting bigger, accounting for a disproportionate share of U.S population growth, according to new population estimates covering the period up to July 2013, released Thursday by the Census Bureau.
While most of the initial coverage of the report has focused on the year-long period from July 2012 through July 2013, I decided to look at the trends over the longer 2010-2013 period, which more or less coincides with the economic recovery. With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I examined the rate of population growth across five key categories of metro size. (See the chart below).
The pattern is striking. Large metros (those with more than a million people) registered the fastest growth by far, 3.2 percent. This explosive growth, in large part due to their capacity to attract immigrants, is considerably better than the 2.4 percent growth rate for the U.S. as a whole. Medium size metros, those with between 500,000 and a million people, grew just a bit faster than the nation as a whole, at 2.5 percent. Metros with between 350,000 and 500,000 people grew at slightly below the national rate, 2.3 percent, while metros with less than 250,000 people grew at just 1.7 percent. And the nation’s smallest geographic units, its 536 micropolitan areas, grew on average just 0.2 percent. More than half of them (286) saw their populations either decline or register no increase whatsoever between 2010 and 2013.
And when we zoom in on which of these specific metros that are gaining and losing population, it's clear that America's new geography is increasingly defined by the two pillars of recovery – knowledge and energy – that I initially defined in a piece for the Atlantic this fall.
Of large metros, Austin – a leading knowledge and tech hub – saw the largest percentage increase in population, growing by 9.7 percent between 2010 and 2013. Raleigh, an anchor of the North Carolina Research Triangle, grew 7.4 percent. Houston, San Antonio, Orlando, Denver, and Dallas each grew 6 percent or more.
Some of the fastest growing areas of the country were in the energy belt stretching from Texas up through the Dakotas. Midland and Odessa, Texas; Bismarck and Fargo, North Dakota; and Casper, Wyoming all saw 2010 to 2013 population growth rates of 7 percent or higher. College towns like Auburn, Alabama; Provo, Utah; Durham, North Carolina; and Boulder, Colorado also registered gains at more than twice the national average.
On the flip side, Rustbelt metros continue to see population stagnate or in some cases even decline slightly. Cleveland and Buffalo saw the slowest population growth of large metros, losing small numbers of people, while population virtually stagnated in Detroit, Providence, Pittsburgh, Hartford and Rochester. Pittsburgh and Cleveland saw small population losses in the more recent 2012-13 period.
Once booming Sunbelt metros, where populations exploded alongside suburban sprawl in previous decades, saw their population growth slow substantially from 2010 to 2013. Las Vegas grew by 85 percent in the 1990s, making it America's fastest growing, and more than 40 percent in the 2000s. But Vegas saw its population growth slow to 3.9 percent between 2010 and 2013, placing it 75th among all metros. Phoenix, which grew by 45 percent in the 1990s (and where population growth topped 4 percent a year for nearly four decades), saw its population growth rate decline to 4.9 percent in 2010-13, leaving it 49th of all metros.
All told, 40 percent of U.S metros (156 of 383) saw their populations grow faster than the national average, while 51 metros grew at twice the national rate, and 13 metros grew at three times the national rate. Seventy-two metros lost population over this period, most of them smaller metros in the Rustbelt and old South.
America continues to see population growth around the twin pillars of its knowledge-energy economy. Many hard hit industrial metros of the Rustbelt continue to stagnate or decline, and the growth of the sprawling, housing-driven metros of the Sunbelt has slowed considerably from the boom years.
Most of all, size clearly seems to matter. America’s biggest metros registered not only the largest absolute increases but also the largest percent gains.
Top Image: Cyclists on a hike and bike trail in Austin, Texas, the large metro with the fastest population growth rate from 2010 to 2013 (Reuters/Julia Robinson).