Big U.S. Cities See Resurgence in Population Growth

Reversing a decade-long trend, many of the largest U.S. cities are now growing more quickly than the rest of the nation, yet another sign of an economic crisis that is making it harder for people to move.

Census data released Wednesday highlight a city resurgence in coastal regions and areas of the Midwest and Northeast, due to a housing crunch, recession and higher gas prices that have slowed migration to far-flung suburbs and residential hotspots in the South and West.

The 2008 population figures show New York and Chicago made gains from higher births, while Philadelphia stanched population losses from earlier in the decade. Also showing rebounds were industrial centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., Columbus, Ohio, and Lincoln, Neb., with economies focused on finance, health care, information technology or education. Detroit, with its ailing auto industry, declined.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, all on the West Coast, registered growth, boosted partly by foreign-born immigrants who moved into and stayed in gateway cities. In contrast, former hotspot areas in Nevada and Arizona had significant slowdowns, as well as inland regions in California.

"Cities are showing a continued vitality as hubs of activity even as some suburban and exurban areas go through tough times," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "It emphasizes the buoyancy of large established cities with diverse economies and populations."

Frey and other demographers said many of the population shifts could be longer-lasting. They noted that while the Sunbelt region is still growing, it is unlikely to return to the torrid growth rates of earlier in the decade before the housing bubble burst.

President Barack Obama has pledged to upgrade mass transit and push energy conservation, high-speed rail and other urban priorities. That could create shifts in residential patterns and city life, especially for younger couples and small families more likely to move.

"Suburban sprawl may not be dead, but it's certainly on hiatus," said Mark Mather, associate vice president of the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau. "Even if the economy recovered tomorrow, it might take a while for people to change their behavior. Attitudes just don't change overnight."

Robert E. Lang, co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, predicted that upscale, inner suburbs with developed transit systems will see bigger gains in the future. He noted that while far-flung exurbs have been declining in population growth, closer-in suburbs such as Virginia's Arlington and Alexandria outside Washington, D.C., jumped 3 percent and 2.9 percent in 2008, respectively, to rank among the 20 fastest-growing cities.

New York continued to be the most populous U.S. city, with 8.4 million residents. Los Angeles ranked second at 3.8 million.