The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

While cities are parts—large parts—of metro regions, it is not necessarily the case that they closely follow the performance of their metros.

While cities are parts—large parts—of metro regions, it is not necessarily the case that they closely follow the performance of their metros. Shutterstock


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Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.

When it comes to the economic status of cities, there is no shortage of conflicting messages—and conflicting facts. On the one hand, we hear about the dominance of superstar cities and tech hubs in the  competition for talented workers, high-end knowledge jobs, and high-tech startups. On the other hand, Sunbelt cities continue to lead in the growth of population and jobs in general.

The reality is that most studies that purport to talk about cities are really talking about the performance of broader metropolitan areas, which are made of up core or principal cities and their surrounding suburbs and exurbs. Looking at cities by themselves is important and useful for several reasons.

For one, there is lots of talk these days about urban revitalization, the comeback of cities, and urban gentrification. But all of this is likely very uneven across U.S. cities, shaped by the same winner-take-allpattern that we see for metro areas. Some cities have bounced back and are experiencing growth in population and jobs, and in key dimensions of talent like college graduates and the creative class. But others continue to struggle and lose ground, whether to other cities or their own suburbs.

While cities are parts—large parts—of metro regions, it is not necessarily the case that they closely follow the performance of their metros. Some cities may perform much better, others worse. This series dives into an aspect of contemporary urbanism that has been under-examined, the economic performance of America’s largest cities.

To get at this, I worked with a team of researchers to analyze the economic performance of American’s 50 largest core or principal cities over the five-year period of 2012 to 2017. Economist Todd Gabe crunched the numbers, using the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey to chart cities’ performance on factors including population growth, employment growth, growth in college grads, and the creative class, as well as how they stack up on economic inequality, housing affordability, and other indicators of what I call the “new urban crisis.”

To provide context, we do a rough comparison of these 50 cities to America’s 53 large metros (with more than 1 million people). We exclude two metros, Charlotte and Grand Rapids, Michigan, because they experienced significant boundary changes that would have affected their results; that leaves a comparison group of 51. It is important to note that eight of the 50 largest cities do not belong to any of the 53 large metros, and also that not all of these metros have cities that number among the 50 largest. Our city-to-metro comparisons are for illustrative purposes only.

Karen King, my colleague at the University of Toronto School of Cities, helped analyze the data and make the comparisons, and my CityLab colleague David Montgomery mapped it.

Population Growth

Today, we start with the basics of population and job growth. The second post in the series will look at college graduates; the third will examine the growth of the creative class in cities; and the fourth will cover inequality and the new urban crisis.

Data show a sharp divergence between America’s fast- and slow-growing cities. The chart above shows the 10 fastest- and slowest-growing on the metric of population.

The overall, broad trend conforms to the popular image of a growing Sunbelt and declining “Frost Belt” of cold-weather cities. However, the most rapidly growing large cities are not sprawling, unregulated Sunbelt ones (such as Houston), but two relatively expensive tech hubs, anchored by leading research universities—Seattle and Austin. Denver, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh also make the top 10. Miami comes fourth, and Fort Worth, Charlotte, Mesa, Arizona, and Omaha round out the list.

Nashville, which ranks first among metros with 15.7 percent growth, scrapes only 24th on the cities list, with 6.9 percent growth. Dallas comes seventh for metros (11.3 percent growth), but 15th  for cities (8.1 percent growth). Houston ranks eighth for metros but 23rd for cities; Las Vegas, tenth for metros and 16th for cities. Two Midwest metros, Columbus and Indianapolis, but not those cities proper rank among the top 10 for population growth.

Leading tech hubs and superstar cities actually appear far down the growing-cities list. Boston is 21st and and San Francisco 22nd, both with around 7 percent growth. L.A. is 34th, with 3.7 percent growth; New York, 35th, with 3.4 percent growth.

When it comes to slow-growing cities (the right side of the chart), Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Memphis have lost population; Chicago has barely held constant. Southern and Western cities round out this group: Long Beach, California, Albuquerque, Virginia Beach, Wichita, and El Paso.

There is more overlap between declining cities and declining metros. Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Memphis show up on both lists. The slow-growing cities of St. Louis, Buffalo, and Cleveland also show up on the list of the 10 slowest-growing metros.

Job and Employment Growth

The picture changes somewhat for employment growth—and conforms even better to the narrative of an ascendant Sunbelt. The chart below shows the change in cities’ employed population from 2012 to 2017. The fastest-growing cities are growing 10 times faster than the slowest-growing ones.

Miami tops the left-hand list, followed by Atlanta, Fort Worth, Denver, and Mesa. The tech hubs of Austin and Raleigh make the top 10. Charlotte is eighth, and the rapidly growing music and tech hot spot of Nashville is ninth. Oakland comes tenth—a product of is accelerated gentrification as a relatively affordable node in the San Francisco Bay Area. Seven of the top ten cities on employment growth overlap with the top 10 for population growth: The new additions are Atlanta, Nashville, and Oakland.

There is significant overlap between this fastest-growing list and metros with the fastest job growth. Five places rank in the top 10 on both: Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, Raleigh, and Denver. (Charlotte would, too, if we did not exclude it because of changes to its metro boundaries.) A number of Sunbelt cities appear further down the fastest-growing cities list: Las Vegas at 12th; Dallas at 20th; Houston at 40th.

Again, superstar cities and leading tech hubs appear very low here. New York is 36th, with 9.1 percent growth. (Detroit actually does better, ranking 28th with 13.7 percent growth.) L.A. is 26th with 14 percent growth; Boston is 23rd (15 percent), and San Francisco is 15th (17 percent).

The slowest-growing cities for jobs (above right) are a mixed bag, with some interesting contrasts. Milwaukee is the only canonical Rust Belt city to make the list, in ninth place. Memphis is second and Baltimore, which is often lumped in with the Rust Belt but is on the East Coast’s Acela Corridor, is tenth.

Tulsa tops the slow list—what’s interesting about that is that nearby Oklahoma City is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities in terms of population. Likewise, Arlington, Texas, has the fourth-slowest job growth; compare this to nearby Fort Worth, with the third-best job growth. Indianapolis, typically thought of alongside Columbus as a success story, actually numbers among the 10 slowest cities on job growth, as do Tucson and Virginia Beach in the Sunbelt.

There is little overlap between slow-growing cities and slow-growing metros, with only Milwaukee showing up in both. The metros include Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Buffalo, Cleveland, Louisville, St. Louis, and Rochester.

Seven cities rank among the top 10 on both population and job growth: Austin, Miami, Denver, Raleigh, Charlotte, Fort Worth, and Mesa. Of these, perhaps the biggest surprise is Miami, which comes first in employment and fourth in population growth. Austin is second in population, sixth in employment. Fort Worth is third in both categories. Conversely, six cities rank in the bottom groups for both: Milwaukee, Baltimore, Memphis, Albuquerque, Virginia Beach, and Wichita.

Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. 

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