The Census Bureau recently released 2022 estimated populations of American Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs – cities with all their suburbs). We were curious to understand what places in the nation were growing and which ones were shrinking since the start of Covid and have here compiled data on growth by metro from 2019 through mid-2022. (These tables should say 2019, not 1999).
The press is full of stories on the shrinking of the Midwest and Northeast, but increasingly discuss the relative roles of bigger and smaller cities. Did Americans flee the big cities for small towns? Migration is an important aspect of population change, but these total populations are driven by births and deaths as well as domestic and international migration, for which we do not yet have details at the metro level.
The most common lists seen are of the fastest growing and shrinking metros, like the following tables.
There are some surprises here, such as Indianapolis adding more people than Denver or Seattle, which do not make this top 30 list.
While those total population increases and decreases tell us the most about how American geography is changing, percent increases tell more about the impact on people living in the community. A 15,000 person jump in the population of The Villages affects crime, traffic, and amenities more than it would in New York City.
The most common gateway to understanding is regional analysis. We’ve divided the nation into eight large regions, plus Hawaii, Alaska, and the District of Columbia, shown from West to East in the table below. (Our Midwest stretches from Ohio to Kansas, the Dakotas to Oklahoma and Missouri.)
California and the Northeast have posted massive losses. Given that these cities have some natural growth (births minus deaths), to be shrinking in this period implies substantial domestic out-migration (often partially offset by international migration from abroad). Yet the million combined loss of California and the Northeast is more than offset by big growth in Texas, Florida, the South, and the Mountain States.
Though we know California and the Northeast are losing, how about the role of large and small cities? For this analysis, we broke all 384 metros down into five size groups or brackets, A through E, each with about 50-60 million total people. On a quick glance, we see that the metros of between 400,000 and a million population did the best, though all the groups below 3 million did relatively well.
If we go deeper, and look at what percentage of metros grew, by size and by region, a new picture emerges. 63% of all the metros, big and small, grew during this three-year period. In that booming 400,000 to one million bracket, group D, we see that 88% of the cities in the Northeast grew, compared with 100% in Florida and 80% in Texas, but only 33% in California. And 70% of the Midwestern cities between 1 and 3 million also grew.
Florida is the only region in which every metro grew in this three-year period. Nevertheless, its biggest metro, Miami, barely grew, due to a high death to birth ratio caused by the age of the population, coupled with domestic out-migration and international in-migration. Tampa more than made up for the slack, despite also having an older population. The smaller cities of Florida, many in central and southwest Florida, are growing as fast or faster than any in the country. Compare that with Texas, where the vast bulk of the growth is in the four largest areas, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.
Continuing with this analysis, compare the regions and size groups by growth numbers and percents:
While this data implies that big cities are losing out, the lists at the start of this article show that is not completely true – giants Dallas and Houston are thundering ahead, together gaining 500,000, followed by Phoenix, Atlanta, Tampa, Austin, and others. It really is a matter of individual cities and parts of the country, which leads us to our third way of seeing.
No geographical analysis is complete without taking a look at the map, a visual analysis. Here is a map of the metro areas showing the growth (in green) or decline (in purple) of total population, with the darkest colors representing extreme growth or decline:
As we studied that map, we noticed that the patterns were not just about people leaving the coasts and running to Texas and Florida. We’ve roughly defined a series of growth and no-growth corridors or zones.
The map below shows the two coastal areas (outlined in red), Coastal California and the Boston-Washington corridor, that have seen the biggest declines. Note, however, that the areas just inland from those two areas are growing. Many of the people leaving New York and the California cities are moving inland or “going exurban” – the outlying areas that are beyond traditional suburbs.
Also apparent is the strength of the Southeast, roughly a triangle of green which might reach well into the Midwest:
Going one step further, we outlined three north-south corridors that are not normally in the conversation, each roughly following an Interstate highway. Here is the I-65 corridor, which roughly parallels the auto and auto parts manufacturing centers of America that have risen up with Detroit’s decline. Overwhelmingly green and growing.
While that I-65 corridor is doing relatively well, the I-55 corridor (down the Mississippi Valley) is a sea of purple, not growing:
And then, another step west, the I-35 corridor is booming:
The Mountain States are generally growing, led by Phoenix, and the Northwest is a mixed bag, with Seattle growing a hair and Portland shrinking.
Central Core Analysis
Below is another map that adds more detail. This map includes the metropolitan areas discussed above along with micropolitan areas – over 500 of them, each with a main city of under 50,000 people, though some have total area populations of over 200,000 people. So this map colors in many more rural areas not shown on the preceding maps. The reason we show this map is to point out that metro area growth is not uniform within each metro. Though their metro areas grew, you can see that the center counties (usually the most populous) did not grow in Dallas, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Columbus, Nashville, and other places. Miami, when broken out by county this way, had areas that shrank. The hearts of Denver, Portland, and Albuquerque lost population. And in Austin and Houston, the core counties (shown in lighter green) did not grow as fast as the surrounding suburban counties.
This brief three-year period continued three trends that have been going on for at least a century:
- Movement from city centers to suburbs and then exurbs.
- Movement from cold winters to warmer ones.
- Movement to where the jobs and economic opportunities are.
Beyond those three long-term trends, in more recent times politics, crime, taxes, Covid policies, housing prices, and other factors have risen to prominence.
Each city and metro is also affected by its industrial mix. Austin was a college town and state capital but has now evolved into a high-tech center. Houston had ups and downs when it was the oil capital. While it remains strong in oil, today Houston is a top healthcare center. Dallas and Atlanta have become centers for corporate headquarters, stealing firms that used to be headquartered in the Midwest and Northeast.
We’ll close with a table showing the most populous metros in the nation, including many that did not make the fast growing or fast shrinking lists:
American Business History Center