The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Seeking the Whole Story on Metro Growth

An aerial view of downtown Cleveland.  Source:

Population growth is certainly one way to measure the success of a metro area.  Hey, we all want our cities to be attractive to someone, and believe that the population growth ultimately leads to economic growth and vitality.  But that might not always be the case.

Joel Kotkin recently published a piece at New Geography (and originally at the Daily Beast) that notes that some medium-to-large Midwestern metro areas — Columbus, Des Moines, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis and Minneapolis — are the fastest growing metros in the Midwest, according to new Census Bureau population estimates released in March.  From 2015-16, those six metros added newcomers at a rate faster than the national average of all 366 metro areas of 0.8%, with Minneapolis leading the way with a very strong posting of 2.0% over the year. 

Kotkin goes on to make two points related to the strong population growth in these metro areas, regarding the stagnant economies of the larger Midwestern cities and the domestic out-migration from high-cost coastal cities, bringing people to the Heartland:

“Kansas City, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Grand Rapids, and Des Moines are the fastest-growing cities in the Midwest—lapping bigger hubs like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and even Chicago that are still suffering from stagnant economies and slow or even negative population growth…

The burgeoning populations in places like Des Moines, which grew by 1.76 percent last year, is being driven by domestic out-migration from the superstar cities. In 2017, nearly three times as many domestic migrants escaped New York as in 2011. Chicago, Los Angeles, and even San Francisco and San Jose also have experienced sharp rises in domestic out-migration…

The coasts’ loss ended up, to some extent, as Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Des Moines, and Columbus’ gains, reflecting a growing flight from what are increasingly gated cities, affordable only to the affluent, the subsidized (students), and those older residents who bought when the buying was good.”

Increasing rates of domestic out-migration from “superstar” cities like New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle and others may be true, and it has become incredibly difficult to maintain a middle-class lifestyle in many of them. 

But if you look at economic performance and not simply population growth, the data tells a different story.

I did a quick examination of metro area population change and metro area per capita GDP change for 2015-16, and looked at absolute amounts of per capita GDP for the six Midwestern metros cited with the highest growth rates in the Midwest, and the six Midwestern metros Kotkin lists as having stagnant economies and slow to negative population growth.  The population data is from the U.S. Census, and the per capita GDP data is from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. 

Here’s the fast-growth Midwestern metros:

And here are the larger Midwestern metros:

Joel is right that the six fast-growth Midwestern metros are outpacing the overall average population growth of the 366 metro areas in the U.S., and are far outpace the largest Midwestern cities — which are indeed losing people.  However, the large Midwestern hubs are far outpacing the national metro average and the fast-growth metros in terms of per capita GDP change — and indication that their economies are becoming stronger, more efficient and more productive.

Population growth certainly tells one story regarding metro areas, but not the whole story.

2 Responses to “Seeking the Whole Story on Metro Growth”

  1. D Holmes

    I find the use in of population growth as a measure of metro area \”success\” to be severely flawed. Changes in the number of households is somewhat better but still missed the key questions related to the type of growth that's occurring (which groups are being lost and which groups are being gsined; is physical growth occurring predominantly as subsidized low quality sprawl or as high quality market driven redevelopment). If the latter form of physical growth is dominant, the metro area is \”successful\” in my opinion. A great illustration is comparing population growth in NYC vs Phoenix during 1950 to 2000. I don't have the exact numbers in front of my and am citing from memory but NYC's population was essentially unchanged while Phoenix gained a million residents. But it turns out that NYC gained perhaps a million households (and a few hundred billion in tax base) within the same geographic footprint whereas Phoenix gained half that number while increasing its land area from 17 square miles to 477 square miles (and assuming the massive future liabilities associated with public infrastructure servicing this expanded area).



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