Future Cities

Measuring Market Momentum: Where is Population Growth Accelerating?

October 12, 2022 5 Minute Read

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Comparing population growth over recent five-year periods can shed light on “sticky” trends that are most likely to impact site selection and talent attraction strategies.

Labor and housing markets across the U.S. have undergone a shift fueled by pandemic-driven remote work and aging millennials’ changing lifestyle priorities. Significant efforts have aimed to track, forecast and explain these changes. But as the pandemic recedes and remote workers return to the office, it is unclear which recent migration patterns will endure. Focusing only on annual population growth since 2020 obscures long-term trends and subtle changes that may uncover unexpected opportunities in certain markets.

This Report compares population growth between two five-year periods, 2010-2015 and 2016-2021, measuring shifts across counties. The results emphasize the acceleration or slowing of growth, highlighting markets that have gained the most momentum, not necessarily those that have grown the most overall.

Top 25 Counties for Positive Momentum Shift (2021 Pop. > 500,000)

Momentum Shifts vs. Overall Growth

Through this lens, Detroit’s core county (Wayne)—with -3.2% population loss from 2010 to 2015 vs. 1.5% growth between 2016 and 2021, a percentage point difference of +4.7—shows stronger positive momentum than Austin’s core county (Travis), with a momentum shift of -5.2 over the same period (14.0% growth between 2010 and 2015 vs. 8.8% between 2016 and 2021). In this example, Austin is the faster-growing market, but Detroit has more positive momentum.

Figure 1 shows the top 25 counties (with a population greater than 500,000 in 2021) for positive momentum growth, ranked by their percentage-point shift between time periods. Additionally, they are grouped by “recovering” markets (those that showed total growth of less than 1% between 2010 and 2015) and “rising” markets (those with total growth that exceeded 1% between 2010 and 2015).

Figure 1

Image of data table 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program (PEP); the reference date for all estimates is July 1.

Top 25 Counties for Negative Momentum Shift (2021 Pop. > 500,000)

Figure 2 shows the top 25 counties (with a population greater than 500,000 in 2021) for negative momentum growth, ranked by their percentage point shift between time periods.

Figure 2

Image of data table

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program (PEP); the reference date for all estimates is July 1.

Map of Momentum Shift by County

Slowing Growth in Metro Cores vs. Accelerating Growth in Outlying Suburbs

Figure 3 reveals that the counties with the strongest momentum increases tend to be midsize western cities that have well-documented growth over the past decade (Boise, Provo, Spokane), as well as suburban counties of large cities like New York, Philadelphia and Dallas. Conversely, the counties with the strongest negative momentum shifts are the core counties of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. This split between rapidly accelerating growth in suburban counties and slowing or reversing growth in the urban core is evident even in markets such as Austin, Charlotte and Nashville that have recently seen rapid expansion. In each of those markets, as well as Atlanta and Dallas, the core counties continued to grow between 2016 and 2021, but at a slower rate than between 2010 and 2015.

Figure 3

Image of U.S. Map

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program (PEP); the reference date for all estimates is July 1.

County Momentum Shift Across Metro Atlanta

This map shows change in population momentum across each county in the Atlanta metropolitan area, which was selected as a representative example of trends. Here, as in many major metros across the U.S., the core county (Fulton) grew at a slower rate between 2016 and 2021 relative to its growth between 2010 and 2015. Conversely, growth accelerated among most suburban and outlying counties during the same period.

Figure 4

Image of Atlanta counties

Image of data table

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program (PEP); the reference date for all estimates is July 1.

County Momentum Shift Across Metro Charlotte

This map shows change in population momentum across each county in the Charlotte metropolitan area, which was selected as a representative example of trends. Here, as in many major metros across the U.S., the core county (Mecklenburg) grew at a slower rate between 2016 and 2021 relative to its growth between 2010 and 2015. Conversely, growth accelerated among most suburban and outlying counties during the same period.

Figure 5

Image of Charlotte counties

Image of data table

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program (PEP); the reference date for all estimates is July 1.

County Momentum Shift Across Metro Dallas

This map shows change in population momentum across each county in the Dallas metropolitan area, which was selected as a representative example of trends. Here, as in many major metros across the U.S., the core county (Dallas) grew at a slower rate between 2016 and 2021 relative to its growth between 2010 and 2015. Conversely, growth accelerated among most suburban and outlying counties during the same period.

Figure 6

Image of Dallas counties

Image of data table

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program (PEP); the reference date for all estimates is July 1.

County Momentum Shift Across Metro Nashville

This map shows change in population momentum across each county in the Nashville metropolitan area, which was selected as a representative example of trends. Here, as in many major metros across the U.S., the core county (Davidson) grew at a slower rate between 2016 and 2021 relative to its growth between 2010 and 2015. Conversely, growth accelerated among most suburban and outlying counties during the same period.

Figure 7

Image of Nashville counties

Image of data table

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program (PEP); the reference date for all estimates is July 1.

Concerted Metro Shifts vs. Intraregional Churn

When county populations are aggregated to their respective metro areas, the split been suburban and urban momentum balances out, revealing minimal metro-level shifts even when the churn between counties within the metro are significant. For example, between 2010 and 2015, the Nashville metro grew by 9.3%, its exact same rate of growth between 2016 and 2021. While the Nashville region continues to grow robustly, it is not growing faster (or slower) than it was in the first half of the last decade, even though its core county (Davidson) slowed by 5.3 percentage points. Overall, the growth stayed constant; it simply shifted from the metro core to the surrounding suburbs.

Among the metros that, in aggregate, have shown the most growth momentum from 2010 to 2015 and 2016 to 2021, many have recently garnered reputations as booming housing and labor markets (Boise, Huntsville, Knoxville, Provo, etc.). But the list also includes many former industrial hubs that struggled to maintain their populations as manufacturing jobs left in recent decades—Allentown, Buffalo, Cleveland, Dayton, Detroit, Scranton and Youngstown are among the top 25 metros (with populations greater than 500,000 residents) for positive regional momentum shift. In many cases, these markets turned population losses between 2010 and 2015 into modest gains between 2016 and 2021—a remarkable net shift, especially compared to most other markets nationally.

Top 25 Metros for Positive Momentum Shift (2021 Pop. > 500,000)

Figure 8 shows the top 25 metro areas (with a population greater than 500,000 in 2021) for positive momentum growth, ranked by their percentage point shift between time periods. Additionally, they are grouped between “recovering” markets (those that showed total growth of less than 1% between 2010 and 2015) and “rising” markets (those with total growth that exceeded 1% between 2010 and 2015).

Figure 8

Image of data table

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program (PEP); the reference date for all estimates is July 1.

What Does This Mean for Site Location Decisions?

The migration of residents from large, expensive city centers to suburban neighborhoods and smaller, more affordable markets has eased sharply over the past year and in some cases started to reverse. But the lasting effects of these changes are unclear. Understanding the shifting momentum of population growth over an entire decade can help put the recent trends into a broader context and identify markets that are gaining momentum, even if their overall growth remains modest. Should such momentum continue, some of these markets could provide emerging investment opportunities.

For more information on identifying and interpreting market signals before they become trends, please contact the Location Incentives Group.

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