Big cities saw historic population losses while suburban growth declined during the pandemic

By William H. Frey, Brookings, July 11, 2022

“As a group, big cities experienced an absolute population loss during the pandemic

“As the economy and housing market picked up in the mid-2010s, growth in big cities slowed. The pandemic began to affect city growth in 2019-20, and even more so in 2020-21—the first year this century when large cities in aggregate registered a population loss, declining by 1 percent.

“Suburbs of large metro areas registered growth declines in 2020-21 

“The sharp decline in city growth during the pandemic’s prime year did not generally lead to equivalent rises in suburban growth in the nation’s 56 major metropolitan areas (those with populations exceeding 1 million). This is because these areas also showed substantial metropolitan-wide growth slowdowns, affecting the suburbs as well as cities. 

“The future of big cities in the post-pandemic period 

“The historic population declines in the nation’s largest cities raise the question of how unusual this prime pandemic period was. Examining data going back two decades, there was no individual year that comes close to showing the population declines that these cities witnessed in 2020-21, alongside slower growth in their entire metro areas and suburbs. 

“Recent analyses of statistics from the U.S. Postal Service and other sources suggest that this 12-month period might be an aberration, and that some of the reasons for a dispersion away from these cities (such as an escape from density for pandemic-related safety reasons) may no longer be salient. Still, the patterns of telecommuting that have begun to take hold may make a ‘return to the city’ less inevitable than it would otherwise be. 

“While many of those who fled cities may not return, future city gains may well be in the hands of younger generations and new immigrant waves — groups that in the past tended to choose big cities as their destinations.”

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