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Lewyn Addresses America

A little politics, a little urbanism- I also blog 100 percent on urbanism at and

One argument I heard while arguing about DC’s height limits: they must work because DC is a success.  It is true that DC gained population in the 2000s.  But it lost population every other decade since 1950, which is not true of all older cities.    (In particular, NY and SF are more populous than in 1980).

Furthermore, DC has an advantage: it is part of a high-growth metro and so gets a few crumbs from the table that central cities of slow growth metros don’t get.

So try this on: maybe one way of measuring a city’s success is to compare its growth to the entire region. If a central city is growing as fast as the metro area, that’s good.  But if its doing much worse than the metro, not so good (even if its still gaining population).  On the other hand, a central city that is losing people might be losing people only because of regional decline rather than because it is an unattractive destination.

So let’s look at a few cities from 2000-10 (including a few successes and a few Rust Belt failures) (Source: 2012 Statistical Abstract , Tables 20 and 27).

Boston 3.7% regional growth, 4.8% urban growth (wow!)

Chicago 4% regional growth, -6.9% urban growth (-10.9 gap)

Cleveland -3.3% regional growth, -17.1% urban growth (-13.8 gap)

Detroit -3.5% regional growth, -25% city growth (-28.3 gap– yikes!)

NY 3.1% regional growth, 2.1% urban growth (-1 gap)

Philadelphia 4.9% regional growth, 0.6% growth (-4.3 gap)

SF 5.1% regional growth, 3.7% urban growth (-1.4 gap)

DC 16.4% regional growth, 5.2% urban growth (-11.2% gap).

DC grew, but MUCH more slowly than its region- the gap between regional population growth and city growth is as big as Chicago’s.  You might say DC’s growth is a “crumbs from the table” scenario- but this is still better than the late 20th c. when the District wasn’t even getting crumbs.   Philly isn’t growing as fast in absolute terms but is closer to the regional level of growth than DC is.

At the other extreme Boston’s population grew more slowly than DC’s but grew FASTER than its region. So Boston’s core city is clearly regaining oomph within its region.

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