The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Chicago Population Loss Was – And Is – Inevitable

View of Fullerton Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, by John Noltner.  Source:
Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood is not what it used to be.  In fact, it will never be what it used to be.  Many Chicago neighborhoods will never be what they used to be.  And that’s the way it will be, until dramatic changes happen.

Daniel Hertz wrote a pretty compelling argument a couple weeks ago for a relaxing of zoning policy that would allow an increase of housing units in the most in-demand neighborhoods in the city.  He uses Lincoln Park and other in-demand north lakefront neighborhoods as examples:

“Indeed, just a couple miles from the heart of the Loop lies a neighborhood that, despite a rich history, beautiful architecture, and quick access to the second-largest business district in America, has lost 40% of its population since the middle of the last century. An area that once held 102,000 people is now home to barely 64,000.

That area is called Lincoln Park.

For a long time, most accounts of Chicago’s lagging population have focused on parts of the South and West Sides where many residents, largely African-American, have decided to decamp for the suburbs or the South in search of better schools, less crime, and more jobs.

But the under-appreciated flip side of population loss in those parts of the city is that places that ought to be growing like gangbusters are stagnant, often sitting 25% to 50% below their peak populations. Lakeview, for example, was once home to 124,000 people; its population is now 94,000. North Center is down from nearly 49,000 to under 32,000. West Town, which includes Wicker Park and Bucktown, has fallen from 187,000 to 81,000.”

Unfortunately, I think Daniel relies too much on old data as acceptable benchmarks, and underestimates the impact of the demographic changes of the last 60-plus years.

I, too, used to wonder why cities, especially Rust Belt cities, could not show positive population gains or approach the population figures of decades past.  I’d wonder why other cities across the nation could show growth, and why obviously in-demand neighborhoods were having exactly no impact on population growth.  Then, I came across a couple articles last fall that make the case that it’s just not in the cards.

St. Louis blogger Alex Ihnen made the point that, no matter what, demographic shifts in our nation meant St. Louis was destined for substantial population loss:

“American families have changed dramatically over the past half century. The average household size in St. Louis in 1950 was 3.1 and in 2010, 2.2. With every other factor held constant, the decrease in city population would have been 248K or 29%. This means that with the same number of homes, the same number of apartments, and the same number of families as resided in the city in 1950, the decrease in average household size could account for 46% of the city’s population loss.

American homes have changed dramatically over the past half century. The average size of a new single-family home in 1950 was 983sf, and in 2010, 2,438. While this number overstates changes in a long urbanized area, there has certainly been a large increase in the average size of the single-family home in the city. This could be new construction, but is also the common two-family to one-family and four-family to two-family renovations.

If nothing else had changed, and families had simply become smaller, and lived in bigger homes, the city would have lost hundreds of thousands of residents. What this really points to is that even if the city, or select neighborhoods reach zero vacancy – zero vacant lots, zero vacant homes – at today’s density, the residential population will not return to 1950, or even 1970 levels.”

Akron blogger Jason Segedy detailed the demographic changes and how they impacted Rust Belt cities:

“Think about what was going on around 1960. Take an older, industrial city, like Cleveland, Detroit, or St. Louis, that is “built out” – that is, nearly all of the residential property in the city is built at the maximum development density that it is zoned for, and the city has very little, if any, available land upon which to build new housing.
At the same time you have several extremely consequential demographic trends occurring all at the same time:

Rising divorce ratesRising age of first marriageRising life expectancyDeclining birth rates

These trends all began to emerge in the late 1950s, took deep root in the late 1960s, and continued virtually unabated up through the late-1990s.

So, set aside any preconceptions you have about the disadvantages of city living versus suburban living.

Forget, for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc.

Focus instead on the profound social trends which occurred between 1960 and 1990. Those involving:

Marriage (divorce and delayed marriage, resulting in more singles)Health care (increased longevity, resulting in more widows and widowers)Reproduction (the development of “The Pill” in 1960, and legalized abortion in 1973, resulting in less children).

The end result of these trends? A much smaller average household size.

So, if these older cities were unable to build more housing units, they were going to shrink to a significant degree, regardless of the crime rate, or school quality, or “white flight”, or any of the other common explanations for urban population loss.

Similar social trends were also occurring in suburban areas, but one mitigating factor was that these areas were being settled disproportionately by families with children.

Suburban areas also had lots of room to build new housing, while the core cities did not. In a developing suburban area, it did not matter if your average household size shrank a bit between 1950 and 2010. If you added an additional 10,000 housing units in that same time period, your community was going to grow – a lot.

Emphasis added.

Population loss in Chicago, and other Rust Belt cities, was inevitable — and continues to be so despite more favorable trends.

Let me explain.  Let’s take data from Lincoln Park and see what it would take for it to reach its population peak in 1950.  This table shows how much of an uphill battle this would be:

 True enough, Lincoln Park’s population is down 37 percent from its 1950 peak to the 2012 figure in the American Community Survey.  However, the number of units is down only eight percent.  Household size is down by 31 percent, and contributes more to the area’s population loss than any other factor.  In fact, if the 32,194 housing units in Lincoln Park had the same household size today as in 1950, there would be a robust 94,000 people there.

To reach the 102,000 residents that Lincoln Park had in 1950, at current average household size levels, here’s what would have to happen:

So Lincoln Park would need 51,000 housing units, or nearly 19,000 more than currently exist in the neighborhood today.  That’s a 37 percent increase — and this assumes a 100 percent occupancy rate, an unapproachable figure.  Getting to 102,000 again might mean the neighborhood approaches a population density it once had (nearly 26,000 people per square mile) but it would mean a units per acre density that Lincoln Park has never seen — more than 20 units per acre, up substantially from its previous peak of 13.8, and even moreso from its current level of 12.7.

I agree Lincoln Park could use more units.  The demand is there.  But getting it back to historical peaks seems highly unlikely to me.  Could Lincoln Park honestly absorb another 19,000 units?  To put that into a different context, that would be an additional 7.4 units per acre in Lincoln Park.  There is demand for more housing in Lincoln Park, but I’d wager it’s more along the lines of one-tenth of the 19,000 it would take to get to its population peak.  Also, while Lincoln Park residents are tolerant of density, it has never seen New York-style density (on a units per acre basis) for its entire existence.  Bringing the community that many new households would strain the community’s infrastructure.  Demographic trends are far too strong, and they’ve made their impact on the neighborhood, and the city, already.

Population growth is a poor indicator of a city’s economic health.  Lincoln Park and the rest of the North Side are quite healthy at greatly reduced population levels.  They are not the problem nor the solution for Chicago’s population loss.


If we’re really going to talk about population increase in Chicago, we don’t start with allowing more units, we start with addressing housing vacancies.  And in this case, Chicago reveals itself as having far more in common with other Rust Belt cities than the coastal cities it tries to run with.

I pulled 2013 American Community Survey data for the 25 largest U.S. cities to see how Chicago compared with them in terms of population density and housing vacancy.  Here’s the data:

I think most observers would know Chicago to be one of the more dense cities in the nation; its per square mile figure would put it fourth of the 25 cities on the above list, behind New York, San Francisco, and Boston.  But Chicago has a high housing vacancy figure as well — at 13.8%, Chicago’s vacancy level is 20th of the 25 cities, ahead of only Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Memphis and Detroit.  
That puts Chicago in a unique position.  Chicago is one of only three high-density, high-vacancy cities among the top 25 (with Philadelphia and Washington, DC).  DC and Philly have both shown population increases in recent years, but without looking at the data, I would surmise that both did so first with a decrease in housing vacancies before an absolute increase in housing units.  Meanwhile, the high-density, low-vacancy cities are the ones whose high housing costs have been driving the gentrification narrative nationally and are indeed in need of more housing units — New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Chicago is not one of those cities.
Further evidence that reducing vacancies — or put another way, increasing demand for housing in Chicago — is the way to population growth.  Currently Chicago has about 1.2 million households, with 14 percent vacant.  If Chicago had the same vacancy rate as New York (9.2 percent), at its current citywide household size (2.60), Chicago would have about 108,000 more residents citywide, putting it over 2.8 million.  If Chicago had Seatttle’s vacancy rate of 6.7 percent, it would have 202,000 more residents citywide, putting over 2.9 million.
Chicago needs to continue to focus on its housing demand challenges before addressing issues of supply.

2 Responses to “Chicago Population Loss Was – And Is – Inevitable”

  1. Anon

    As a Midwesterner, I always wondered why you never, EVER hear about Philadelphia in the news, despite being a \”Top 5\” city by population. NYC/DC, of course, Boston, sure, but not Philly. The median income is shockingly low… and apparently immigrants are moving there because it's low cost.


  2. Eric Rojas

    Great site and article. I discovered it due to the Crain's Lincoln Park article as well. I'll add it to my recommended reads, thanks!



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