America’s Fastest-Growing Cities Since The Recession

Appearing in:

The Daily Beast

It was widely reported that the Great Recession and subsequent economic malaise changed the geography of America. Suburbs, particularly in the Sun Belt, were becoming the “new slums” as people flocked back to dense core cities.

Yet an analysis of post-2007 population trends by demographer Wendell Cox in the 111 U.S. metro areas with more than 200,000 residents reveals something both very different from the conventional wisdom and at the same time very familiar. Virtually all of the 20 that have added the most residents from 2007 to 2012 are in the Old Confederacy, the Intermountain West and suburbs of larger cities, notably in California. The lone exception to this pattern is No. 15 Portland. The bottom line: growth is still fastest in the Sun Belt, in suburban cities and lower-density, spread out municipalities.

The No. 1 city on our list, New Orleans, fits this picture to a degree as a quintessentially Southern city, but it’s a bit of an anomaly. Its fast growth is partially a rebound effect from its massive population loss after Katrina, but is also a function of a striking economic revival that I have seen firsthand as a consultant in the area.

Since 2007 New Orleans’ population has grown 28% to 370,000. Many are newcomers who came, at least initially, to rebuild the city. But the city is still way below the 2002 population of 472,000, much less its high of 628,000 in 1960.

New Orleans is one of six cities where the population of the core has grown more in total numbers than the surrounding suburbs. (The other five are New York; San Jose, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; Columbus, Ohio; and San Antonio.) This is also a product of the fact that, when the Greater New Orleans region began to recover, the return to the suburban regions, for the most part, came before that to the city.

Nothing in the data, however suggests a revival of the older, dense “legacy” cities that were typical of the late 19th century and pre-war era. Most of the fastest-growing big cities since 2007 are of the sprawling post-1945 Sun Belt variety, including Charlotte, N.C. (No. 4); Ft. Worth, Texas (No. 6); Austin, Texas, (10th); El Paso, Texas (11th); Raleigh, N.C. (12th); and Oklahoma City (18th). Some of the fastest-growers are also outside the major metropolitan areas, such as No. 5 Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley, the North Carolina cities of Greensboro and Durham, (9th and 14th, respectively), and Corpus Christi, Texas (16th).

Among the big Northeast cities, the best performer is Washington (27th with 7.8% population growth) followed by Boston (71st, 2.2%). New York has managed only 0.3% population growth since 2007 (88th). Among other leading U.S. cities San Francisco’s population is up 3.3%, Los Angeles has grown 2.1%, and Chicago’s population has dropped 3.4%.

The other somewhat surprising result is the strong performance of more purely suburban cities, that is, ones that have grown up since car ownership became nearly universal. They are not the historic cores of their regions but have developed into major employment centers with housing primarily made up of single-family residences. These include the city that has grown the second most in the U.S. since 2007: Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb close to the Mexican border, whose population expanded 17.7%. It’s followed in third place by the Los Angeles suburb of Irvine (16.3%); No. 7 Irving, Texas; and the California cities of Fremont (13th) , located just east of San Jose-Silicon Valley, and Oxnard (17th), north of Los Angeles.

What do these results tell us? First, that Americans continue to move decisively to both lower-density, job-creating cities and to those less dense areas of major metropolitan areas particularly where single-family houses, good schools and jobs are plentiful.

Irvine, a planned postwar city of some 230,000 which ranks as the country’s seventh-wealthiest municipality, has three jobs for every resident; roughly two in five residents work in the city. Irvine’s 16.3% growth rate since 2007 has been bolstered by a strong inflow of Asians. Once overwhelmingly white, Irvine’s population is now roughly 40% Asian and 9% Hispanic.

Similarly, Irving, Texas, also thrived through the recession. Like Irvine this Dallas-area suburb is a major job center. Headquarters for Nokia , NEC Corporation of America, Blackberry, and Exxon Mobil, Irving’s population has soared over 13% over the past five years to 225,000.

This contrasts with some similarly sized suburbs that boomed in the first part of the decade. North Las Vegas added 80,000 people between 2002 and 2007 but its growth slowed down considerably as the Nevada economy cratered. This extension of Las Vegas has added a relatively paltry 12,000 people since 2007. With Phoenix losing 3.2% of its population since ’07, the nearby former boomtowns of Mesa and Scottsdale have also seen net outflows of residents.

Migration numbers for 2010 to 2012 alone hammer home that suburban areas are continuing to attract people, and that the more dense core areas do not generally perform as well. Although their growth has slowed compared to the last decade, suburban locales, with roughly three-quarters of all residents of metropolitan areas, have added many more people than their core counterparts.

Where do we go from here? The urban future will continue to evolve in directions that contradict the prevailing conventional wisdom of a shift toward more crowded living. The continued dispersion of America’s population is evidenced by the persistent, and surprising, strength of suburban towns, as well as the low-density cities of Texas and the Plains. The key to growth in the next decade may depend largely on whether these rising municipalities can continue to create the jobs, favorable educational environment and amenities necessary to attract more newcomers in the future.

25 Fastest Growing 2007-2012
RANK MUNICIPALITY 2002 2007 2012 2007-2012
1 New Orleans, Louisiana 472,744 288,113 369,250 28.2%
2 Chula Vista, California 194,167 214,506 252,422 17.7%
3 Irvine, California 162,205 197,714 229,985 16.3%
4 Charlotte, North Carolina 590,857 669,690 775,202 15.8%
5 Bakersfield, California 259,146 312,454 358,597 14.8%
6 Fort Worth, Texas 570,808 680,433 777,992 14.3%
7 Irving, Texas 195,764 198,119 225,427 13.8%
8 Laredo, Texas 189,954 215,789 244,731 13.4%
9 Greensboro, North Carolina 231,415 245,767 277,080 12.7%
10 Austin, Texas 684,634 749,120 842,592 12.5%
11 El Paso, Texas 570,336 600,402 672,538 12.0%
12 Raleigh, North Carolina 313,829 379,106 423,179 11.6%
13 Fremont, California 205,034 199,187 221,986 11.4%
14 Durham, North Carolina 196,432 216,943 239,358 10.3%
15 Portland, Oregon 538,803 546,747 603,106 10.3%
16 Corpus Christi, Texas 276,877 283,445 312,195 10.1%
17 Oxnard, California 176,594 183,235 201,555 10.0%
18 Oklahoma, Oklahoma 519,100 545,910 599,199 9.8%
19 Aurora, Colorado 282,707 309,007 339,030 9.7%
20 Denver, Colorado 561,072 578,789 634,265 9.6%
21 Fontana, California 158,916 184,814 201,812 9.2%
22 Fresno, California 442,987 465,669 505,882 8.6%
23 Orlando, Florida 199,358 230,239 249,562 8.4%
24 Colorado Springs, Colorado 376,341 399,751 431,834 8.0%
25 Riverside, California 272,814 290,601 313,673 7.9%