Cities Lead the Way
Latest census figures shows all state population growth in urban areas.
The recently released 2012 population estimates from the US census tell several stories. Not surprisingly, one is that Wisconsin did not have a lot of growth. Consistent with Wisconsin’s poor job growth during this period, its population grew by 0.65 percent, compared to 1.48 percent for the US as a whole.
A second story: what growth there was came largely in urban areas. Madison particularly grew, easily beating the national average. The Madison experience is repeated in college towns around the nation, which grow faster than their states. The challenge for Madison and the others will be how to keep the growth from destroying the environment that makes them attractive in the first place.
While lagging well behind Madison, Milwaukee and its surroundings also grew. Putting Wisconsin’s two largest metropolitan areas together, they accounted for 72 percent of the estimated population growth while only having 38 percent of the people.
|July 2010 – 2012 Growth|
|% of WI||27.8%||14.6%||%||71.8%||38.0%|
If the Fox Valley (the Oshkosh/Neenah, Appleton, and Green Bay metro areas) and Kenosha (part of the Chicago metro area) are added, the calculation becomes:
|% of WI||102%||53%|
This means that most of Wisconsin’s land area or half of the state by population saw no net growth. A county map shows a nearly checkerboard pattern of counties with shrinking population (in white) next to counties with growing population (dark green).
If there is any pattern to population growth it is that counties with small populations were less likely to grow; rural and small-town Wisconsin is shrinking.
While Milwaukee’s population growth is small from a national viewpoint, it stands up well when compared with other cities on the Great Lakes, as the chart below shows, with population changes in both the cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas measured. Milwaukee stands with Chicago as the best performers among this group. The statistics suggest that all the cities bordering the Great Lakes are facing a challenge as they attempt to find a new role following the decline of their traditional manufacturing base.
|July 2010 – 2012 Growth|
Within Wisconsin itself, the smaller cities along Lake Michigan also lost population during this period, probably reflecting a loss or downsizing of traditional manufacturers:
A comparison of population in the core cities with that of their metropolitan areas suggests that the two are linked. Although there is an evident population shift from the core city to its suburbs going on in many cases, no metropolitan area is able to completely divorce itself from the decline of its core city.
Finally, let’s take a look at what is going on within the Milwaukee metropolitan area itself. All the metropolitan counties grew during this period, but Milwaukee and its close-in suburbs had more growth than the surrounding counties.
|Milwaukee city, Wisconsin||595,167||598,916||3,749||0.63%|
|Milwaukee county suburbs||352,568||356,289||3,721||1.06%|
It should be emphasized that these figures cover only two years. Extrapolating them to forecast future trends is risky, particularly if the economy continues to recover. Even so, they seem to reflect several national trends:
- A continuing shift of population from rural areas and smaller cities to large urban areas.
- The growth of close-in suburbs at the expense of those further from the core city. Whether this is a long-term trend is likely to depend in part on the price of gasoline.
- Increasing popularity of downtowns (where all of Milwaukee’s growth occurred according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and areas with older buildings.
- Continuing challenges for traditional manufacturing cities along the Great Lakes.
Here are some further observations:
- The challenge for the Madison area is fundamentally different from that of most of the rest of the state: how to manage growth so that it does not diminish the quality of life that attracted people to the area in the first place.
- Sprawl in the counties surrounding Milwaukee represents a similar, if largely unrecognized, challenge. If largely unplanned development resumes (as the economy recovers) in Waukesha County, for instance, consuming farms, forests, wetlands and watersheds, more communities are likely to experience shortages of safe drinking water.
- There needs to be far more thought as to what happens to Wisconsin’s rural areas and smaller towns and cities if the population continues to shift to urban areas.
- Milwaukee is starting to see the economic benefits of its efforts to remake itself as an attractive place to live. But it faces continuing challenges if it is to enhance the urban values that increasingly attract people (particularly young people and retirees) to cities, including alternatives to the automobile, strengthening walkability in neighborhoods, and expanding amenities such as bike paths. And it faces the challenges common to other cities of maintaining public safety and educating many of the state’s most needy children. Finally, it has to solve these issues while facing an often-hostile state government.
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