City populations dipped in past three years, though lifting of lockdowns may spark demand for urban digs
  • City population growth slowed or fell over the past three years, reversing early-decade expansions, a Brookings Institution study found
  • Exit from COVID-19 lockdowns may return growth to city populations as workers seek low transportation costs  
  • Rising housing costs and lack of options for lower income levels helped stall city growth, ex-Obama administration official tells Karma.

COVID-19 is taking a rising toll in both lives and livelihoods, with nearly every person on the planet affected. City populations, in decline before COVID-19 and its response brought the U.S. economy to its knees, may end up a rare beneficiary of the pandemic.

U.S. cities, for the most part, stopped growing the way they were in the years after the 2008 recession. A recent Brookings Institution survey found that around 2016, urban growth tailed off and suburbs resumed gaining inhabitants as they had for much of last century. Among cities with more than 1 million residents, New York and Chicago lost population, while Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia saw growth rates narrow.

Experts, including study author William Frey and former planning director of Washington, D.C., Harriet Tregoning, say soaring housing costs are responsible for sagging city populations. People moved to cities post-recession, as prices fell. However, New York City home prices nearly doubled between 2010 and 2019, according to data from Miller Samuel/Douglas Elliman reported in December by Curbed New York. 

“Cities have found it difficult to keep up with housing demand, and to provide enough housing for those at different income levels,” Tregoning, who is now director of the New Urban Mobility alliance in Washington, told Karma in an interview.

Frey in 2014 wrote a piece speculating that the ‘10s would be the decade of urban expansion, based on rising city population figures and slumping suburban growth. As the economy healed, suburbs saw hiring pick up again and lending loosened up so young buyers were able to pick up first homes and move from cities, he wrote in his new article. 

“Some of the ‘return to the city’ movement was spurred by the economic difficulties millennials faced,” he wrote.

Economic difficulties may be on cities’ side again as the economy seeks to shake off the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Cheaper transportation continues to draw people to cities, and that may help as individual and family budgets are strained by unemployment and other fiscal problems brought on by the economy’s collapse, Tregoning said. For example, in Washington D.C.’s metro area, 9% of household income goes to transportation while outside of that zone, where car commuting prevails, that number more than doubles to 19%, she said.

“If the economic hangover is long, cities might begin to look attractive again,” she said.

Then there’s just the simple history of economic surges following calamities, which may also draw residents back to urban zones, Frey noted. Cities grew the most after the 2008 recession, he said. That was a time when housing loans dried up and suburbs hemorrhaged jobs.

“There is a possibility that young adults — both millennials and Gen Z — may again gravitate to big cities as the pandemic recedes and gives way to a recovering economy,” he wrote.

Car commuting has plummeted during the economic lockdowns, contributing to cleaner air around the world. Millennials and Gen Z may be drawn to cheaper, cleaner city transportation options, such as walking, bicycling and mass transportation, once the economy opens up. Biking has soared in New York this year, the New York Times reported

Still, this is all speculation. And both noted that they have little visibility into the effects of the most recent population shifts on the job market: predicting winners and losers isn’t possible from the midst of the current chaos.