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Census Releases New City Population Change Estimates

The U.S. Census released new population and housing units estimates for cities today. Phoenix added more residents between July 2017 and July 2018 than any city in the country.

James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell | May 23, 2019, 2pm PDT
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Updated, May 24, 2019.

"The South and West continue to have the fastest-growing cities in the United States, according to new population estimates for cities and towns released today by the U.S. Census Bureau."

The news above was shared by a Census Bureau press release this morning, and picked up by national and local news outlets all over the country. Thanks to the stellar work of the @allthingscensus Twitter feed, what follows is a long list of news for population statistics junkies to read through.

But first, a few observations on how population news is reported.

City Boundaries Are Arbitrary, and So Are City Population Figures

People are naturally competitive, but I'd like to suggest that being competitive about the population of your city relative to other cities is a sign of immaturity. I say that as someone who was very competitive about the population of the town I grew up in, Concord, California, until I reached the age of about 15 or 16 years old. I'm not sure what piece of information helped me reach a more enlightened stage; I just now that when I reached a certain age, I was less competitive about certain arbitrary distinctions, like the population of Concord, compared to, say, Walnut Creek.

When the newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, with a size of 223.1 square miles, boasts in a headline about having more people than San Francisco, with a size of 47 square miles ("Columbus now bigger than San Francisco, Census says"), we can assume that something is amiss with the reasoning motivating that message.

To be fair, the article in question quickly proceeded from the misleading headline to present a few disclaimers about the size of each city's respective metropolitan areas—so the boastful headline probably wasn't the point of the article. But the headline still appealed to some compulsion in the audience wasn't it? That's called clickbait. Was it necessary to set up the teachable moment that followed? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

That's not to say that population change isn't incredibly important—it's perhaps the primary concern in planning for the future. Good or bad decisions in how to plan for growth (or decline) have tremendous influence on public health, quality of life, and economic mobility. Population is far from arbitrary, until the comparisons start.

Cities or Counties, the Story Stays the Same

Just last month, the Census Bureau released its population estimates for counties, and the headlining narrative was almost identical. The headline on Planetizen that day: "New Population Estimates Released Today; South and West Lead Population Growth." No matter how you slice the geographic measure, the story of population growth in the United States is a story told most resoundingly in places like Texas and Arizona. In fact, more people moved to Phoenix (25,288) between July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018 than any other city in the United States.

Speaking of population growth being of primary concern to planning for the future, the city of Phoenix has recently doubled down on the least efficient form of transportation by rejecting Vision Zero traffic safety measures, reallocating funding intended for new light rail to road programs, potentially rescinding additional planned light rail capacity, and continuing to sprawl farther and farther into the desert. The question of whether the city's current growth will bring about positive outcomes is very much a story to watch in the future.

The cities following Phoenix with the largest numeric population increases were San Antonio, Texas (20,824); Fort Worth, Texas (19,552); Seattle, Wash. (15,354); and Charlotte, N.C. (13,151).

Decline Is an American Story Too

As numerous studies have made clear, growth is not the only story to tell in U.S. cities. Many cities, including some of the largest most culturally significant cities in the country, are dealing with various states of decline. The population estimates for Chicago, for instance, tells a story of decline for the city as a whole, and a tale of two cities, depending on which neighborhood you examine.

Census Population and Housing Unit Estimates News Round Up

  • San Jose population declines slightly as other Bay Area cities see increases (KTVU)
  • Georgia’s small towns continue to shrink, new census estimates show (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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