Two Additional Maps on Urban Population Change in the United States

In October 2023, GeoCurrents ran several posts on the historical and recent population growth of major American cities. These posts were envisioned at the time as the beginning of a large project on mapping the expansion of urbanism in the United States. That project, however, has been put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. But there are two remaining maps from this endeavor that are worth sharing.

The first is a schematic map that takes the sixteen largest cities in the U.S. in 1950 and shows their relative population in that year 2020 and in 2020. As can be seen, 12 of these cities experienced population loss in this period, several to a significant degree. Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo have greatly diminished. Other declining cities, especially Boston, Milwaukee, and Washington, saw much smaller losses.

Only four of 1950’s largest cities gained population over the next 70 years. Two made marginal gains (New York and San Francisco), one expanded significantly (Los Angeles), and one boomed (Houston). Significantly, all four lost population from 2020 to 2022, although in Houston the decline was insignificant (0.07 percent).

The second schematic map turns from city population to metropolitan area population, which in many ways gives a better sense of U.S. urban dynamics, given the country’s extensive suburbanization. Here we see relative population size, again depicted by the area of each polygon, and population growth from 2010 to 2020, coded by color. As can been seen, all the top 60 metropolitan areas in the U.S. gained residents during this period, but they did so at very different rates. As would be expected, sunbelt metro areas saw the fastest growth and rustbelt ones the slowest. Only a few metro areas in the northern half of the country experienced major growth in the period, with Seattle, Minneapolis, and Omaha standing out. In the South, the relatively slow growth of New Orleans, Birmingham, Memphis, and Virginia Beach stands out, as does the rapid population expansion of the Austin, Nashville, and Raleigh metro areas.