Boston is growing faster than its suburbs — and faster than any large or mid-sized city northeast of Hoboken, New Jersey — according to new population estimates of cities with at least 50,000 people released last week. The Census pegs Boston at 636,479 people as of July 2012, up 3.1 percent from the official 2000 2010 count.
The new estimate is still far below Boston's record population of 801,444 (achieved in 1950), but it's a sizable improvement over the Hub's modern low point (562,994 in 1980), and it lends some credence to the idea of a "back to the city" movement. Among major Northeastern cities, Washington was up 5.1 percent, New York was up 2.0 percent, Philadelphia was up 1.4 percent, and Baltimore inched up by 0.1 percent — far behind a lot of Sun Belt cities like Austin (up 6.6 percent), but good news for metropolises that had suffered long periods of decline.
The Midwest dominated the list of declining cities, with possible fracking site Youngstown, Ohio, falling the most (-2.4 percent) in its estimated population. In the Northeast, the biggest decliners were two small cities and a once-mighty city now smaller than nine places in Texas: Warwick, Rhode Island (-1.0 percent), Niagara Falls (-0.9 percent), and Buffalo (-0.7).
Boston's population reversal is accompanied by an economic recovery that hasn't been as strong elsewhere in New England. The Hub has always dominated the six-state region, but the past decade has been the first in more than a century in which it seems to have increased its population power. Below are three charts that illustrate Boston's revival; click on any of them to get a bigger image.
The chart above measures what percentage of the total population of Massachusetts, and of New England, have lived in the city of Boston. The city reached its peak share of the Commonwealth's population in 1880, just after it annexed the last chunk of land (Charlestown) that make up its shape today. Charlestown. (Boston attained its current shape in 1912, after annexing the town of Hyde Park.) For the next 40 years, about one in five Bay Staters lived in Boston, as the population swelled with immigrants and people looking for industrial jobs. Boston's share of total population slowly declined as the suburbs took shape, then plunged in the 1950s and 1960s as the city lost jobs and succumbed to nationwide urban decay. By 2000, fewer than one in 20 residents of Massachusetts were in Boston.
The 2010 Census showed Boston regaining population share for the first time since it established its current borders.
Boston's share of the New England population has been about half its share of the Massachusetts population for more than a century, which underscores how much the entire region rises and falls in accordance with its biggest state. Still, its share of the region's population would probably still be falling if New Hampshire's growth rate hadn't cooled down during the past 12 years.
Boston has never faced a serious threat to its status as biggest city in Massachusetts or New England. Major cities in other states have lost the population crown (Cleveland to Columbus in Ohio, St. Louis to Kansas City in Missouri), but the small land areas of municipalities in New England don't give them much room to grow. It's also rare for a capital city to drop from first place; Hartford, Connecticut, is one of the exceptions, having been passed by Bridgeport, New Haven, and Stamford on the New York commuter rail corridor.
The chart above shows population trends in the five largest cities of New England outside of the New York satellites. All of them fell from 1950 to 1980, preventing any from emerging as a rival to Boston. All except Hartford have regained some people since, but, again, none has significantly outpaced Boston.
Boston is surely gaining more people because of its relatively strong economy. Its metro area unemployment rate in March was 5.9 percent, compared with 11.3 percent in New Bedford, 10.9 percent in Waterbury, and 9.9 percent in Providence/Fall River. The question is whether Boston's new growth will eventually spread to other cities in the region — or whether the Hub is simply part of a big-city archipelago, with smaller urban areas left to struggle in the New Economy.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal's Neil Shah reports on the a national trend of cities growing faster than suburbs in the past few years. Among the 51 biggest metro areas in the US, central cities grew by 1.12 percent between 2010 and 2012, outpacing the average 0.80 percent in suburban areas. But that's not cause to celebrate, says demographer Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire, who tells Shah that fewer people “are moving out of the big urban cores because the recession [and sluggish recovery have] tended to freeze people in place.”
Johnson's explanation is consistent with the recent drop in the US homeownership rate. It's still debatable how many people are remaining big-city renters out of choice and how many are "frozen" in cities like Boston because they can't afford to buy a house in the suburbs.