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Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Growth

New data from the 2010 Census show that the U.S. population grew by 27.3 million people over the last decade. Most of this expansion was accounted for by growth in larger metropolitan areas, and this is not too surprising, as this is where most of the U.S. population resides. The top 100 metropolitan areas gained 19.8 million people and account for two-thirds of the total population. Still, 48 metros declined in population over the last decade, losing three-quarters of a million people. A striking feature of this population loss in metropolitan areas is how geographically concentrated it is. Apart from the large population loss in New Orleans due to Katrina, metropolitan population decline in the lower 48 states is concentrated in metro areas near the eastern Great Lakes.

Figure 1. Metropolitan Population Loss: 2000 - 2010

The populations of the Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland metro areas fell by roughly 3 percent from 2000 to 2010. Smaller metro areas in this area of the country (Flint, Toledo, and Saginaw) also experienced declines, and even growing metro areas in this region (Akron, Rochester, and Syracuse) eked out only small gains.

Metropolitan Population Loss, 2000–2010

Rank MSA Loss 
(number of people)
Growth (percent)
1 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI −156,307 −3.5
2 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA −148,746 −11.3
3 Pittsburgh, PA −74,802 −3.1
4 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH −70,903 −3.3
5 Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA −37,191 −6.2
6 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY −34,602 −3.0

Source: Census Bureau.

Larger gains in population were located in metro areas along the eastern corridor from Atlanta to New York, and in Florida, Texas, the Southwest, and the Pacific Coast. The large metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago grew by 3 percent to 4 percent, whereas the Houston and Dallas metro areas expanded by 26.1 percent and 23.4 percent, respectively. Houston and Dallas each added over 1.2 million people to their metropolitan areas—the largest absolute gains observed in the country. Growth did occur in some large Midwest metro areas, as well. Columbus, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis all expanded at relatively robust rates over the decade.

Figure 3. Metropolitan Population Gains: 2000 - 2010

The Census Bureau also measures populations in smaller urban areas referred to as “micropolitan areas.” Micropolitan areas have urban cores of 10,000 to 50,000 inhabitants and range in size from 12,000 to 200,000 people in the 2010 Census data. Micropolitan areas have grown at a slower rate than metropolitan areas over the last decade. Population growth averaged 11.0 percent for the 374 metropolitan areas and only 5.1 percent for the 581 micropolitan areas. Moreover, there is a greater percentage of micropolitan areas undergoing decline (28.7 percent) compared to metropolitan areas (12.8 percent). This is reflected in the fact that the distribution of micropolitan growth rates is shifted well to the left of the metropolitan growth rate distribution.

Figure 4. Population Growth Distributions: 2000 - 2010

The population losses in the micropolitan areas are somewhat less geographically concentrated than those in the metropolitan areas. There is still a significant cluster of micropolitan areas around the eastern Great Lakes that are losing population, but there is a bit more dispersion. Indeed, nine out of the ten micropolitan areas with the largest losses in population over the period 2000 to 2010 were in the South. The larger circles on the chart below show population losses in the 3,000 to 6,000 person range, with the largest decline (−11,840) observed in Greenville, Mississippi.

Figure 5. Population Growth Distributions: 2000 - 2010

The reason why the urban areas of the eastern Great Lakes have suffered declining populations is multifaceted. Clearly, the population in the core cities of these metro areas has fallen sharply (for a discussion of this trend see this article). The continued after-effects of de-industrialization, older populations, less educated workforces, and the broader trend movement of population to the South have been associated with low population growth in such metropolitan areas. Still, many of these factors are “endogenous,” as much a result of the slow population growth of a region as a driver of slow growth.

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