by August Benzow

Key Findings

  • Only cities in the South have returned to pre-pandemic growth rates as of 2022, although many cities in the West have started to add population again.
  • The urban Northeast had 150,000 fewer residents in 2022 than in 2020, and Midwest cities struggled to return to positive growth.
  • Fort Worth added 30,000 new residents since 2020, putting it on track to surpass San Jose—the next most populous city—in a year or two.
  • Seattle was the only West Coast city to climb back above its 2020 population with 12,200 new residents added in 2022.
  • The strongest performing city in the Midwest was Columbus, OH, with 0.2 percent population growth from 2020 to 2022.
  • The surrounding metropolitan area grew faster than the core city for 72 of the 100 largest cities, indicating that suburban and exurban growth outpaced urban growth.
  • A narrow majority (52) of the 100 largest cities saw positive growth from 2010 to 2020 and from 2020 to 2022.
  • A handful of cities are experiencing severe long-term decline: Detroit is down 93,400 residents from 2010 to 2022, a 12.8 percent decline.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities seemed to be facing an existential crisis as fears of the virus and the sudden prevalence of remote work drove a rapid outmigration to suburbs, exurbs, and the hinterlands. Generally, higher-skilled workers had more freedom to leave behind urban centers, while lower-skilled workers had fewer opportunities to detach themselves from their workplaces. To make matters worse, birth rates hit a new low in 2020, and immigrants, who have always bolstered the populations of cities, entered the country in far fewer numbers due to pandemic restrictions. Journalists and scholars quickly raised the alarm that these trends could spell the end of the “golden age” for cities, which many worried were in danger of becoming crime-ridden ghost towns.

With the recent publication of 2022 population estimates for U.S. cities, some of these concerns have been shown to be overblown, even if the long-term trends for many cities—which were in place before the pandemic—suggest difficult times ahead. The relatively brief surge in urban population growth in the early 2010s was followed by a notable slowdown in the late 2010s for almost every city. While the pandemic turned decelerating growth into outright decline for many cities, the latest data shows that most cities are stabilizing even if they are far from regaining lost residents.

Clear regional patterns have emerged, though. The country’s urban growth engines are unquestionably in the South now, especially in Texas and Florida, while cities everywhere else struggle to hold onto their population. There are notable exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. Seattle and Columbus, OH, have climbed above 2020 population numbers, while Dallas and Nashville have not fully recovered from pandemic losses.

A slow recovery for most coastal and heartland cities

The map below shows that nearly every major coastal and legacy city was still below its 2020 population in 2022. Cities in the South almost all gained population year-over-year in 2022, and most were comfortably above their 2020 numbers. Fort Worth stands out with more than 30,000 new residents since 2020, a 4.1 percent increase, the highest two-year percentage increase among the fifty largest cities. Fort Worth’s population is on track to surpass San Jose, the next most populous city, in a couple of years if the former’s growth and the latter’s decline continue. Elsewhere in the country, California’s growth has retreated inland with Sacramento and Fresno adding population, while most cities in the Mountain West and South Atlantic regions also attracted new residents.

Seattle was the only West Coast city to climb back above its 2020 population with 12,200 new residents. More impressively, its 2.4 percent growth rate from 2021 to 2022 was the highest among any of the 50 largest cities, including the sprawling growth hubs in Florida and Texas. Its success defies an easy answer because, like its other West Coast peers (all of which are still shedding population), it struggles with rising crime, a high cost of living, a large share of remote jobs, and high numbers of the unhoused—all of the issues that are supposed to doom cities to long-term decline. Record residential construction is one explanation for its growth, making it an attractive destination for potential new residents faced with tight coastal housing markets. It stands in stark contrast to nearby Portland, OR, which suffers from those same issues and lost nearly as many residents year-over-year in 2022 as it did in 2021, with almost 20,000 fewer residents since 2020.

Far from either coast and surrounded by cities with dismal population trends, Columbus, OH, managed to just barely climb above its 2020 population with 0.2 percent population growth from April 2020 to July 2022. While this is hardly booming growth, it is a much more positive trend than peer cities like Indianapolis, which saw a 0.8 percent decline in population over the last two years. Kansas City, MO was the only other Midwest city to add population with a little over a thousand new residents since 2020. The worst percentage decline regionally was in St. Louis, which has seen a 5.0 percent decrease in its population since 2020. 

Most cities that gained population are in high-growth metro areas

For most cities, slow growth rates from 2020 to 2022 were mirrored by the surrounding metropolitan area. Among the hundred largest cities, 63 percent of those that lost population were in metro areas that also lost population. Notable exceptions include Dallas, which saw a slight decline in population even as the surrounding metro area grew, and Nashville, which saw a 0.8 percent decline in population while the metropolitan area grew by 2.9 percent. Inversely, all but two cities that added population were in regions that also grew. Irvine’s population grew by 2 percent while the Los Angeles metro shrunk by 2.5 percent. Also in California, the city of Chula Vista added population even as the San Diego metro experienced a slight decline.

Metropolitan areas tended to grow faster than their core cities. This was the case for 72 of the 100 largest cities and evidence that suburban and exurban growth is outpacing urban growth. Most cities that grew significantly faster than their metros—such as North Las Vegas, NV and Port St. Lucie, FL—were suburban without a defined downtown. Seattle and Miami were the most populous exceptions; they saw 1.7 and 1.6 percent growth, respectively, while their metros experienced little change in population.

Major cities in the Midwest and Northeast tended to fall in the bottom left quadrant of the scatterplot below, meaning that both the cities and surrounding metro areas were losing population. New York City, for example, saw a 5.3 percent decline in population from 2020 to 2022, while the surrounding metro area shrunk by 2.6 percent. This indicates that even if some city residents are moving within the metro, the end result is still a net loss for the region.

Pre-pandemic trends still shape patterns of urban population growth

Since the mid-2010s, the country’s 100 largest cities have collectively seen declining annual population growth, a trend driven by slumping immigration rates, declining birth rates, and outmigration to suburbs and exurbs. The severity of this decline varies dramatically by region. [1] As a group, cities in the South and West saw their population growth rates stabilize at just over 0.5 percent annually through 2019. Meanwhile, cities in the Midwest saw flat growth and cities in the Northeast began to lose population.

While the pandemic accelerated these trends, it did not change the map of growth and decline. As of 2022, only cities in the South, with their large stocks of relatively cheap housing, have returned to pre-pandemic growth rates, although many cities in the West are adding population. The urban Northeast is still posting annual population losses, with 150,000 fewer residents in 2022, and the urban Midwest is struggling to return to positive growth. While these trends might improve somewhat in subsequent years, most cities outside the South will have to contend with shrinking populations for the foreseeable future. Even once booming cities in the West like Boise and Colorado Springs are seeing slumping growth rates, likely due to pervasive affordability issues.

A majority of cities continue to add population, but a few struggle with long-term decline

The interactive below shows population trends for the 100 largest cities from 2010 to 2022, alongside growth rates for 2010 to 2020 and 2020 to 2022. Cities can be sorted by region to allow for peer comparisons. As noted in the methodology section, estimates through 2019 are not adjusted to the 2020 Census, so some cities see a sharp break, up or down, from 2019 to 2020. Even with this limitation, the visualization clearly shows which cities are on a positive or negative demographic trend and which were most impacted by the pandemic.

A narrow majority (52) of the 100 largest cities saw positive growth from 2010 to 2020 and from 2020 to 2022. This growth before and after the pandemic indicates that while some cities face a demographic crisis, others are thriving, and not just in the Sun Belt, with examples in every corner of the country except the Northeast.

An additional 37 cities added population from 2010 to 2020 but have lost population since 2020. The degree of population loss varies from city to city. Since 2020, Chicago lost all of its gains during the 2010s and now has fewer residents than it did at the start of the last decade. Long Beach, CA, was the only other major city to suffer that fate. Philadelphia, by contrast, is still comfortably above its 2010 population count. It is too soon to tell whether these cities will continue to decline over the rest of the decade or bounce back in the next few years.

Finally, a handful of cities are stuck on a declining population path, with no trajectory change on the horizon, especially since they are all in lagging regions as well. St. Louis has lost 32,700 residents since 2010—a tenth of its population—and Detroit is down 93,400 residents, a 12.8 percent decline. These are both examples of cities that have struggled with population loss for decades and likely will continue to for the foreseeable future.


While a low-growth future might be in the cards for many cities across the country, it is clear that the initial population shock of the pandemic has subsided in most places; however, many cities, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, are still losing population. Nonetheless, it is a reason for optimism that despite permanently elevated levels of remote work, some cities have returned to pre-pandemic growth rates. This change is partly because many younger Americans and immigrants still choose to live in cities, even if family formation tends to occur in suburbs and exurbs. But policy choices matter too. To hold onto population and attract new residents, cities will have to address rising housing costs, languishing downtowns, school quality, and other quality-of-life issues.

Data notes and methodology

This analysis uses Census population estimates for July 2010 to July 2019 and April 2020 to July 2022 to track annual changes in U.S. cities. April is used for 2020 because it is a better pre-pandemic baseline due to the rapid population shifts in the early months of the pandemic. Each decade’s annual population estimates use the decennial Census as a starting point. Estimates up until 2019 are based on the 2010 Census, and post-2020 estimates are based on the 2020 Census. Because available estimates for the 2010s are not adjusted based on the 2020 Census, 2019 estimates differ significantly from 2020 and consequently do not make a suitable baseline for comparison to 2022.

[1] Regions are defined based on Census definitions.

Geographic Trends  Demographic Trends  Spatial Inequality

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