Can We Drop the Media Narrative of Cities Being in Decline?

According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, which is tasked with providing population estimates for metro Atlanta, the City of Atlanta is the fastest growing large jurisdiction in the metro area. With a growth rate of 2.8% between 2022 and 2023, Atlanta surpassed all metro area counties, including the fast-growing counties of Cherokee and Forsyth. Since 2010, the city has added about 100,000 people and, at 521,000 residents, is now the most populous in its history. This is a stunning turnaround for a city that was left for dead in the latter part of the 20th century.

As we’ve written about before, major cities in the U.S. saw dramatic declines in population from the 1950’s and 1960’s through the early 1990’s. This was due to several things, including the proliferation of cars and highways and the explicit use of racial segregation tactics, both of which were fueled, in part, by government policies designed to move (mostly white) people from cities to suburbs. As a result, large cities like Atlanta were hollowed out. For an entire generation of older Americans, their view of a city is that of decay.

Well, a lot has changed in the past 30 years, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years. After reaching a high of around 500,000 people during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Atlanta’s population plummeted to less than 400,000 by 1990. Between 1990 and 2010 the city added about 25,000 people. Between 2010 and 2023, though, it added 100,000 people. That means in just the last 13 years, Atlanta has fully recovered all the residents it lost during the great urban exodus of the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s. That’s an absolutely stunning renaissance and one that’s been shared by many major American cities.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the media narrative around cities was that of chaos and decline. Many predicted an urban doom loop of crime, office vacancies, and falling population that would lead the country’s major cities down the path of perpetual deterioration. This has mostly turned out to be sensational hype.

Active and Proposed Developments in Midtown Atlanta

After rising in 2020, crime has fallen across the country and is now largely below pre-pandemic levels, which was already at historically low levels. According to a new study, 25 of America’s largest 26 urban centers now have more residents than they did before the pandemic. The urban core of Phoenix, Arizona is the only major downtown area that currently has fewer residents than it did before the pandemic. Despite what critics hoped for, America’s cities appear to have quickly rebounded from Covid and are poised to continue their decades-long growth. This shouldn’t be that surprising, though, since housing affordability was and still remains a major problem. How could housing prices be so high in urban centers if they’re terrible places where no one wants to live?

The U.S. Census Bureau will release its official 2023 population estimates for incorporated cities in May after releasing estimates for counties this month. Let’s hope the data encourages the media to more accurately reflect what’s going on in our cities.

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