Pandemic-Era Big City Population Loss More Dramatic Than We Thought

A new analysis indicates that many big cities saw their biggest population declines in at least a decade, with suburbs also showing a slowdown in growth.

2 minute read

July 13, 2022, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


New data from the Census Bureau shows dramatic population losses in the 88 largest U.S. cities, writes Brookings senior fellow William H. Frey. A Brookings analysis “places these estimates in the context of recent decades’ trends, when America’s big cities experienced noticeable ups and downs. It then shifts the focus to the suburbs of major metropolitan areas, which—while benefitting somewhat from recent city population losses—tend to display growth slowdowns of their own.”

The article outlines the changes in big-city population growth since the start of the millennium, as the early years brought on a suburban boom followed by a slowdown in suburban growth during the 2007-2009 recession. “The pandemic began to affect city growth in 2019-20, and even more so in 2020-21—the first year this century when large cities in aggregate registered a population loss, declining by 1%.” Between 2020 and 2021, “Fourteen cities experienced their first population losses since at least 2010, including Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, San Diego, and Seattle.”

The analysis highlights the drastic impact of the pandemic. “Examining data going back two decades, there was no individual year that comes close to showing the population declines that these cities witnessed in 2020-21, alongside slower growth in their entire metro areas and suburbs.” But while the dramatic loss of population may be a pandemic-era blip, changes like the shift to remote and hybrid work signal that a “return to the city” is “less inevitable than it would otherwise be.”

Monday, July 11, 2022 in Brookings

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