Major US Cities Threaten to Erase Their Population Deficits of the 1950's-1980's

Streetcar Downtown

The Atlanta Streetcar winding through downtown. SustainAtlanta

The last five years have been extraordinary for many of America’s major cities, though that may be putting it too lightly. While Chicago, Detroit, and other rust belt cities continue to struggle in their efforts to attract new residents, other major cities have seen unprecedented growth. In just the last five years, many cities have partially or fully recovered all the population losses seen during the end of the last century.

That’s significant considering that from about 1950 to 1990 people left major cities in droves to head to the suburbs. These urban areas went into disrepair as the federal government pursued the extensive construction of our nation’s highways and suburban tract housing, a decision that actively subsidized the movement of (mostly white) residents to the new developments that were once forests and farmlands. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC, Baltimore, Atlanta, Seattle, and San Francisco, just to name a few, saw significant decreases in population and wealth.

For many in the baby boomer generation, the idea of a city conjures images of poor, crime-infested and drug-laden streets lined by run-down, abandoned buildings. It makes sense since many large American cities that were once prosperous centers of commerce, entertainment, and living had been reduced to just that characterization throughout most of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

NYC Subway

New York subway circa 1980’s. via

Look no further than almost any film produced or set during that time period. While Taxi Driver and Blade Runner are less subtle in their portrayal of the city as a place of terror, even films such as Ghostbusters, Back to the Future II, and Woody Allen’s cache during that era can’t help but show the city in poor form. Certainly cities back then had many charms, but there really is no avoiding the fact that they were largely in a free fall, a decline that society assumed to be perpetual.

Well a lot has changed over the past 20 years. Starting in the 1990’s, large American cities began to find their footing and yearly population decreases began to reverse. This reversal slowed a bit in the 2000’s, but then took off starting in the latter part of the decade coinciding with the Great Recession. The meteoric rise of major American cities over the past 10 to 15 years should be considered just as historically significant as the mass exodus from cities during the 1960’s though 1980’s.

The numbers for many cities are staggering. Let’s start with Atlanta. After reaching a high of around 500,000 people during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the population plummeted to less than 400,000 by 1990. Between 1990 and 2010 the city added about 25,000 people. Between 2010 and 2015, though, it added 40,000 people. So in just the last five years, Atlanta added almost half the people it lost during its great exodus of the 1970’s and 1980’s. [1]

The chart below illustrates the population changes for select US cities between 1960 and 1990 and  between 2010 and 2015. As an example, New York City lost about 450,000 residents between 1960 and 1990 and gained about 350,000 residents between 2010 and 2015. [2]

Cities Pop Change 1960-2015

Washington, DC is perhaps an even better story. Though, it hasn’t made up for its losses nearly as well as Atlanta, DC lost many more residents during the latter half of the 20th Century. In the mid 1950’s, DC’s population was just over 800,000. By 2000, its population had fallen to just 570,000, having lost over 200,000 residents. Well, in just the five years between 2010 and 2015 the city gained nearly 70,000 new residents; that’s a recovery of roughly 30 percent for a city written off as dead and gone. Going back to 2000, DC has added 100,000 people and currently has a population of about 672,000.

The same can be said for New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston. Between 2000 and 2015 New York added 355,000 residents. That’s nearly the amount it lost between 1960 and 1990.

Over the past few days following the release of the 2015 Census data for cities, the stories in most news outlets have largely revolved around the population growth in the southern and western states. Smaller and medium-sized, mostly suburban cities are growing rapidly. This is the same story we’ve heard for the past several decades. It’s certainly an important development, but it shouldn’t overshadow the monumental re-birth of our populous, dense, and culturally significant cities.

In many cases, including here in Atlanta, over the past five to ten years the denser, more populous city has grown as (or more) quickly than most of the surrounding suburban areas. Other larger, more historically suburban cities, such as Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Denver have grown as well; though now we see them growing denser, not just wider. This is a dramatic departure from the development patterns we’ve seen over the past 60 to 70 years. When such a cataclysmic change occurs, such as when people abandoned big cities in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, that should be the story; not just some small town in Texas that continues to grow at 8 percent a year.

We’ll wrap up this article by presenting some supplementary data tables based on the recently released Census figures.

Figure 1. Population of Select US Cities

US Cities Pop 19602015

Figure 1 shows the population of the largest US cities plus several select US cities in 1960, 2010, 2014, and 2015.


Figure 2. Population Percent Change for Select US Cities

City Pop Change 20102015

The above chart shows the percent population change of the largest US cities and select US cities between 2010 and 2015 and between 2014 and 2015.


Figure 3. Population Density VS Population Percent Change

Cities Pop Density Percent Change

Figure 3 shows the population density of the largest US cities and select US cities in comparison to their respective percent population changes. Generally speaking, the cities with less density have grown more quickly, but San Diego, San Jose, and Phoenix have grown more slowly. Conversely, Seattle, DC, Miami, and Boston have grown more quickly.

For our Atlanta readers, we will have more local data and discussion based on the latest Census numbers in the coming week.



1. All data is from the US Census Bureau

2. All cities could not be charted out of practicality. The cities selected are major cities that have shown dramatic turnarounds. Cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas have historically been more suburban with less racial strife and were consequently immune to the abandonment of cities between 1950 and 1990; their populations have continued to climb, largely uninterrupted, since their founding.  Conversely, cities such as Buffalo, Detroit, and Baltimore have not recovered from the abandonment. These two sets of cities were excluded. Chicago and Philadelphia were included as examples of major cities that have not been able to recover.

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