Stories

The rise and fall of America's biggest cities in one map

Mapping the population changes across the United States between 1790 and 2017 shows not only the rise and fall of major American cities, but also how uneven the most recent urban revitalization has been.

Our thought bubble: Regions are competing fiercely for the jobs and talent to fuel economic survival in the era of automation. But the uncertainty around that growth complicates long-term infrastructure investment decisions.

The big picture: Cities that were major economic hubs during the last century — primarily in the Northeast and Midwest — are struggling to hold on to population. At the same time, some of the most successful areas — New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles — have had incredible staying power in the past several decades as they attract jobs and high-skilled workers.

  • The migration to the West and South is striking, showing the broad population gains by Sun Belt states as Rust Best areas decline.
  • More granularly: The Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Vermont have never hosted a top 100 city.

A note about the data: In order to facilitate comparison all the way back to 1790, we are mapping the population of legally defined places, not broader metro areas. (Find more information on that data here.)

In a CityLab analysis, urban expert Richard Florida broke down the fastest and slowest-growing cities between 2012 and 2017.

  • Among the most rapidly growing large cities are those that have become tech hubs that are also home to large universities. Seattle, Austin, Ft. Worth and Miami all had populations grow by 12% or more.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Memphis have all lost population.

The bottom line: While the largest places will undoubtedly maintain their dominance in terms of ability to attract people, the more recent growth occurring in mid-sized cities, as well as in suburbs and exurbs of the biggest cities, is constantly shifting.

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to use total population figures for 2017 (not civilian population figures, which exclude people younger than 18).