Population figures for all 50 states were released in late December by the US Census Bureau. Because the Bureau treats the District of Columbia as if it were a state, among the results announced were those for one city: Washington.
In Washington’s case, the census showed that the long period of urban depopulation has come to an end, and then some. Since 2000, Washington has achieved a net gain of nearly 30,000 inhabitants, and has seen its total population climb to 601,723. Harriet Tregoning, the District’s planning director, was quoted in The Washington Post as calling this a “huge milestone.” Joy Phillips of the State Data Center pronounced the population turnaround “a dream realized.”
Until 2010, every census since 1950 had shown the District losing people. At Washington’s peak in 1950, the city was home to 802,178 people. No wonder Washington municipal officials are now in a mood to celebrate.
William H. Frey, demographer for Brookings Institution, told me that since at least 2007, cities have been doing better than they used to do at retaining population. This, he suggested, reflects the nation’s distressed economy, which has made it harder for people to pick up and move — harder to sell one house and buy another.
In a State of Metropolitan America report last year, Frey pointed out that from 2007 through 2009, the US recorded “the lowest rates of annual mobility since the Census Bureau began collecting migration statistics in 1947-1948.” Curtailed national mobility could help explain why city populations have, on average, stopped their previously sharp descent.
But clearly something else is going on as well. As Frey himself noted in the Brookings report, “the post-2000 period was largely a good one for big city populations. Among the primary cities of the 100 large metros, 67 showed gains from 2000 to 2008.” In some cities, this continued a population rebound that had begun in the 1990s.
Enormous improvements taking place
In my visits to Washington over the past decade, I’ve seen enormous improvements. Some of the neighborhoods near Metro stations have experienced a boom both in housing development and in the services and amenities that make a neighborhood attractive, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and everyday shopping.
When I asked longtime real estate analyst Christopher Leinberger for his view of what’s happening in Washington, he emphasized that “this is an historic turnaround after two generations of population loss.” Leinberger, a visiting fellow at Brookings, cited these facts: “In January 2000, the most expensive housing on a price per square foot basis was in the high-end, horsey town of Great Falls, Virginia, where a house on a 2-acre lot (90,000 sq. ft.) with some of the best schools in the country sold for 25 percent more than a Dupont Circle townhouse (1,500 sq. ft. lot and possibly the worst schools in the country).”
“By January 2010,” Leinberger pointed out, “that Dupont Circle townhouse was 70 percent higher than the Great Falls house on a price per square foot basis, and the DC schools were not much better. … I feel there has been a structural shift, and the data shows it has benefited downtown and nearly all DC neighborhoods.”
Washington is one of a number of cities in which the municipal government is performing better than it did 20 years ago. Also, the rise of the “’creative class” — knowledge workers who thrive on face-to-face exchanges of ideas and information — has been good to cities (though less so for cities in old industrial regions, where the economy tends to be weakest). People in their twenties, many of them raised in the suburbs, are gravitating toward lively, walkable neighborhoods in cities and close-in suburbs.
Population figures for other US cities will be released in coming months. Not all of those statistics will be good news. But I expect quite a few of them to be gratifying. The work that has gone into making cities better — into creating neighborhoods that suit people eager to be part of local life, and interested in being less dependent on cars and highways — is paying off.