Downsizing Cities

Impelled by a comment left by one of the regular commenters here I began thinking about the situation in which many American cities find themselves. My researches revealed something interesting: all major U. S. cities north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi have decreased in population from their peaks nearly 60 years ago. See the table below to get some idea of the scope of the change.

City Population at peak Population now (est.) Percentage difference
Baltimore 949.708 622,793 34.4%
Boston 801,444 655,884 18.2%
Buffalo 580,132 258,703 55.4%
Chicago 3,620,962 2,722,309 24.8%
Cincinnati 503,998 298,165 40.8%
Cleveland 914,808 389,521 57.4%
Detroit 1,849,568 680,250 63.2%
Minneapolis 521,718 407,207 21.9%
Newark 438,776 280,579 36.1%
Philadelphia 2,071,605 1,560,797 24.7%
St. Louis 821,960 317,419 61.4%

Yes, neither St. Louis nor Minneapolis are east of the Mississippi but they follow the pattern of the Eastern cities. There appear to be two exceptions to that pattern: New York City and state capitals. In general the date of peak population for these cities was 1950 but in the case of St. Louis it was 1930.

There are all sorts of reasons for this startling transformation of American cities including

  • Suburbanization
  • De-industrialization
  • Lifestyle reasons impelling people to move south or west
  • Economic reasons impelling people to move south or west
  • Cities just aren’t as necessary as they used to be
  • Incompetent city governments
  • Predatory state governments
  • The interstate highway system

If you had the choice between living in Detroit and living in San Francisco which would you choose?

This dwindling in population has taken place even as the total population of the United States has doubled. Given the length of time over which urban populations have declined, it’s clearly a long-term trend. Rather than dwelling on measures to reverse the trend I believe it’s time to adjust to it.

Sharply smaller populations pose serious problems for cities. City revenues increase as their populations increase and decrease as their populations decrease but cities’ expenses don’t decrease nearly as quickly as revenues do when a city’s population decreases. A city block in which two hundred people live and one in which two people live both need sanitation, police, fire, and other city services but it’s a lot easier to distribute the cost of those services among two hundred people than it is between two.

Decreasing city populations make commitments for future payments like municipal bonds or city workers’ pensions significantly more difficult to satisfy. I don’t know what roll declining population has on the crisis in public workers’ pensions but it can’t be inconsequential.

Typically cities don’t have either the power or the will to, as me auld mither used to say, grasp the nettle and shrink the borders that made sense when the cities were 10% or 20% or, in some cases, 60% more populous than they are now and states must step in. It’s high time for states to start taking the task of downsizing cities seriously.

14 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Metropolitan areas.
    01. New York: 12,604,000
    02. Chicago: 5,208,000
    03. Los Angeles: 4,250,000
    04. Philadelphia: 3,297,000
    05. Detroit: 2,884,000
    06. Boston: 2,301,000
    07. San Francisco: 2,131,000
    08. Saint Louis: 1,541,000
    09. Cleveland: 1,425,000
    10. Pittsburgh: 1,400,000
    11. Washington: 1,287,000

    01. New York: 14,437,000
    02. Los Angeles: 6,805,000
    03. Chicago: 6,377,000
    04. Philadelphia: 4,419,000
    05. Detroit: 3,750,000
    06. San Francisco: 2,607,000
    07. Boston: 2,501,000
    08. Pittsburgh: 2,105,000
    09. Washington: 1,905,000
    10. Saint Louis: 1,864,000
    12. Dallas: 1,435,000
    15. Miami: 1,173,000
    17. Houston: 1,140,000

    01. New York: 17,068,000
    02. Los Angeles: 8,463,000
    03. Chicago: 7,882,000
    04. Philadelphia: 5,323,000
    05. Detroit: 4,435,000
    06. Boston: 3,919,000
    07. San Francisco: 3,109,000
    08. Washington: 3,142,000
    09. Pittsburgh: 2,759,000
    10. Saint Louis: 2,551,000
    11. Dallas: 2,424,000
    14. Miami: 2,236,000
    16. Houston: 2,201,000
    20. Atlanta: 1,840,000

    01. New York: 16,363,000
    02. Los Angeles: 9,410,000
    03. Chicago: 8,052,000
    04. Philadelphia: 5,239,000
    05. Detroit: 4,435,000
    06. Boston: 3,938,000
    07. Washington: 3,398,000
    08. San Francisco: 3,250,000
    09. Miami: 3,220,000
    10. Houston: 3,147,000
    11. Dallas: 3,017,000
    15. Atlanta: 2,326,000

    01. New York: 16,863,000
    02. Los Angeles: 11,273,000
    03. Chicago: 8,181,000
    04. Philadelphia: 5,435,000
    05. Detroit: 4,353,000
    06. Boston: 4,133,000
    07. Washington: 4,122,000
    08. Miami: 4,056,000
    09. Dallas: 3,989,000
    10. Houston: 3,767,000
    12. Atlanta: 3,068,000

    01. New York: 18,323,000
    02. Los Angeles: 12,365,000
    03. Chicago: 9,098,000
    04. Philadelphia: 5,687,000
    05. Dallas: 5,161,000
    06. Miami: 5,007,000
    07. Washington: 4,796,000
    08. Houston: 4,715,000
    09. Detroit: 4,452,000
    10. Boston: 4,391,000
    11. Atlanta: 4,247,000

    01. New York: 18,897,109
    02. Los Angeles: 12,828,000
    03. Chicago: 9,461,000
    04. Dallas: 6,371,000
    05. Philadelphia: 5,965,000
    06. Houston: 5,946,000
    07. Washington: 5,582,000
    08. Miami: 5,564,000
    09. Atlanta: 5,268,000
    10. Boston: 4,552,000

    Present day (last available estimation):
    01. New York: 19,128,707
    02. Los Angeles: 13,046,718
    03. Chicago: 9,559,207
    04. Dallas: 6,725,448
    05. Houston: 6,281,135
    06. Philadelphia: 6,029,312
    07. Washington: 5,845,430
    08. Miami: 5,771,842
    09. Atlanta: 5,488,101
    10. Boston: 4,631,177

  • Note that the #1 explanation I put forward in the post was suburbanization. That’s what your list says, too.

    Unfortunately, that does nothing for the cities. The city of St. Louis and its suburbs are in different counties. Chicago is in Cook County the population of which has been flat or in slow decline for forty years. Yes, DuPage and McHenry counties are growing. That does nothing for Chicago.

    All of which is why I think the states need to take some action.

    And in some cases (Boston) the city’s suburbs aren’t even in the same state. Lots of the people in the Boston Metropolitan area live in low tax New Hampshire.

    Also note the cities that fell off your lists of the top 10 metropolitan areas. That wasn’t an oversight. It was because they were no longer among th top 10 metropolitan areas. So, for example, the population of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is smaller now than it was in 1950. Metro Detroit is half the size it was in 1930. Greater Cleveland is about the same size as it was a half century ago and has been contracting for the last 40 years.

  • TastyBits Link

    I do not disagree, but I think it is going to be a lot harder than you might think. The areas that will need to be abandoned are those where the people are the poorest and, most likely, the darkest. I doubt that this will go over very well. I would argue that there is also an issue of devalued property, and this is a form of government taking.

  • I do not disagree, but I think it is going to be a lot harder than you might think.

    The racial/ethnic issue cuts two ways. How palatable is it for a Chicago half its previous size and 2/3s black or Hispanics to be devoting the lion’s share of its budget to paying the pensions of mostly white public employee retirees?

  • ... Link

    Lifestyle reasons impelling people to move south or west

    That is, air conditioning becomes effectively cheap! Make air conditioning illegal and Florida would shrink back to a population of two million or so within five years.

  • ... Link

    The growth of the Miami metro area is a case of criminal stupidity on the part of government officials and developers. Phoenix and Las Vegas are also insanely stupid cities.

  • PD Shaw Link

    New Orleans
    630,000 (1960/Peak)
    494,300 (2005/pre-Katrina)
    384,320 (2014)

    That’s a loss of 39% from peak, but most of that loss was before Katrina (lost 21.5% from 1960 to 2005; lost 17.5% from 2005 to 2014). I would attribute the pre-Katrina losses to deindustrialization and suburbanization, and last year the city grew 1.4% which is a cooling down. It will probably reach 90% of pre-Katrina population in 10 years.

    Things going for the City:
    1. Influx of hipsters and young whites;
    2. Better weather than Detroit;
    3. Destruction of poor housing stock opened up development opportunities;
    4. Shared tragedy led to community spirit, better governance;
    5. Federal dollars for improvements;
    6. Crime rate down;
    7. Geography (swamps) severely constrain threat of urban sprawl.

    Things not going for the city:
    1. Some appearance of gentrification in certain parts of the city, but the per / capita incomes seem to have only modestly risen overall; it looks like lower-income people left and were replaced by young people with modest income and financial expectations;
    2. Weather too hot/humid in summer; little sun in the winter and promises year-round hay fever;
    3. Hurricane season is every year;
    4. Malinvestment in low-lying, vulnerable areas, though most people are choosing to live/move upriver;
    5. Housing/rent cost quite high;
    6. Influx of Central American immigrants has kept unemployment up and increased educational burden from non-English speakers;

  • Make air conditioning illegal and Florida would shrink back to a population of two million or so

    You don’t have to make it illegal. You just need to make electricity unaffordable. The Powers-That-Be are working on that.

  • PD:

    Urban homesteaders aren’t going to save New Orleans or any other city with a dwindling population.

  • ... Link

    PD, didn’t NO also get hurt by the advent of cargo container shipping, which greatly reduced the need for longshoremen?

  • Phoenix and Las Vegas are also insanely stupid cities.

    The first time I was in Phoenix (many, many years ago) it was basically a railroad crossing surrounded by a couple of thousand dusty shacks. Any notion that a major sustainable city was possible in that location is a fantasy.

  • jan Link

    Looking at Steve’s post, listing the populations of major cities for the last 65 some years, it appears that the larger metropolitan areas noted had slower growth rates in the last 15 years — from 2000 up to the last estimated stats.

    I wonder how much the sheer density of areas finally reaches a tipping point where people move simply to have more space and sanity in their lives.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Ellipses: Yeah, and Houston grabbed a lot of shipping business as well.

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