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Recent Population Trends in the Midwest

The release of the latest Census data reveals that Cleveland's population has fallen since the last census and dipped below the 400,000 mark. From 2000 to 2010, the city's population fell from around 478,000 to about 397,000 (a 17.1 percent drop). Cleveland's recent loss of population is not uncommon for cities in the Great Lakes region. Even the largest city in the region, Chicago, has shrunk over the past 10 years. Chicago's population fell to about 2.7 million in the latest census, a 6.9 percent drop from 2000. Interestingly, both cities experienced their peak population in 1950. Since then, Cleveland has lost over half of its population, while Chicago has lost slightly more than a quarter.

Things look a bit different when we expand beyond the city boundaries to the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) or the Combined Metropolitan Statistical Area (CSA). While the five counties that make up Cleveland's MSA decreased in population by 3.3 percent, the eight counties that make up Chicago's MSA grew by 4.0 percent. Similarly, the eight counties in Cleveland's CSA shrank by 2.2 percent while the 14 counties in Chicago's CSA grew by 4.0 percent.

A different way to analyze the recent population data would be to convert it into density figures. Looking at population density allows one to examine the concentration of people in a given area. In general, denser areas have the potential to support a greater amount of economic activity than more diffuse ones. Mapping population density allows one to compare the spatial distribution of population over time, and sheds some light on population movement within a region.

From 1950 to 2010 the city of Cleveland's population density fell from about 11,800 people per square mile to 5,100 people per square mile. Over the same period, the city of Chicago's population density fell from 15,900 people per square mile to 11,900 people per square mile.

Chicago's population has pushed outward since 1950, and much more of the surrounding area is now covered by low-density suburban development. At the same time, the north side of Chicago has remained densely populated, while parts of the south and west sides are a bit less densely populated now than they were in 1950. The other noteworthy change is that some parts of the downtown area, which had very light population density in 1950, are now densely populated.

Figure 1. Chicago Population Density

Cleveland was similar to Chicago in 1950, in that population density exceeded 15,000 people per square mile across much of the city. But by 2010 almost nowhere in Cleveland or its MSA was the population that dense. Like Chicago, Cleveland has seen its population disperse into the surrounding suburbs over the last 60 years. However, Cleveland was unable to retain high levels of density in the central city.

Figure 2. Cleveland Population Density

The Cleveland pattern looks similar to Detroit's and Toledo's. All three have lost the population density in the core that they used to have in 1950. In contrast, some cities such as San Francisco are still about as dense as they were in 1950. Philadelphia and Chicago also have mostly kept the density that they had in 1950 and added other dense area in the suburbs. Other cities like Columbus and Pittsburgh are middle cases: They still have some core density, but not as much as they had in 1950.

Moving forward, the big question for Cleveland is to what degree population loss at its core is a cause or consequence of its overall population loss. Is an empty middle just a manifestation of population loss or is it a contributing factor?

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