Milwaukee Is a Great Lakes Star

New census estimates show Milwaukee’s population is growing faster than any other Great Lakes city.

By - May 7th, 2014 10:08 am

The US Census Bureau recently released its 2013 population estimates for counties and metropolitan areas (estimates for cities are due in July). While such estimates should always be treated with caution, these offer support for my previous reporting suggesting several trends are continuing:

  • In the Milwaukee region, the long-term shift of population from the center to the peripheries (ex-urban areas) has stopped, at least in the short run.
  • State-wide, loss of population in the majority of counties, particularly the most rural ones, as well as some smaller cities, continues.
  • Weak or negative growth in cities on the Great Lakes is continuing pattern.

The city of Milwaukee’s population peaked in 1960. Milwaukee County’s peaked a decade later. As can be seen below, subsequent growth (from 1970-2000) in the metropolitan area came in the three suburban counties that the Census Bureau includes in the Milwaukee MSA.

Metro Milwaukee Population

Metro Milwaukee Population

The latest estimates show Milwaukee County adding more people than the three suburban counties combined as measured by count, and at about the same rate as measured by percentage growth.

Population Growth 2010-2013

Population Growth 2010-2013

Again these numbers should be treated with caution, since they are estimates and cover a short period, but they seem consistent with trends in much of the US, reflecting the increased popularity of urban centers.

As Wesley Edens, one of the two businessmen buying the Milwaukee Bucks told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “It’s a great Midwestern city. It’s the classic city (in which) the downtown over time became less relevant as you built up the suburbs. I think it’s a great opportunity for the city to kind of reinvent itself from an urban perspective.”

Wisconsin is becoming increasingly urbanized. Rural Wisconsin continues to lose population, as described in an earlier article. Three quarters of counties with populations under 60,000 lost residents during the three year period.

Most cities located on the Great Lakes are either losing population or have weak growth compared to the U.S. growth of 2.2 percent during this period. The figures in the chart below are for the metropolitan areas (MSAs), so they do not reflect a shift from cities to their suburbs.

Growth 2010-2013

Growth 2010-2013

Compared to other cities on the Great Lakes, Milwaukee (followed by Chicago) is the standout for population growth. This raises a number of questions: Does the weak performance of cities of the Great Lakes stem from common causes or just coincidence? Perhaps the very success the lakes brought to their cities as industrial and commerce centers makes it harder to respond to shifts in the economy. But why has Milwaukee outperformed its peers?

There has been remarkably little study of these issues. But if Wisconsin is to prosper, these are the kinds of questions that need tackling.

10 thoughts on “Milwaukee Is a Great Lakes Star”

  1. David says:

    I believe this just reinforces the idea that improved connections to Chicago (rail, freeway, etc.), separate us further from the other Great Lakes cities.

  2. Steve says:

    Interesting. I would like to research this a little further. What kind of people are moving to the city? I have read reports that older people and retirees are moving back to cities to save on gas and to be closer to hospitals etc.i wonder if young people with families are still turned off by large cities because they feel schools and crime are a problem. If anyone has and links on these questions please post them.

  3. Hereiam says:

    My wife and I have a 9 month old, and won’t be moving outside the city. We’re also not alone among our similar-aged friends. It’s anecdotal, but you can take it for what it’s worth.

  4. PMD says:

    A New York Times story from this April states that the suburbs of NYC, Chicago, Boston, and DC have seen a large decline in the number of 25- to 44-year olds, and that people in that age range are either staying in the city longer and not moving to the burbs or moving to the city from the burbs.

    And this story from January says that more young people are moving to Minneapolis-St.Paul while the Twin Cities suburbs are getting older and older.

  5. SFScott says:

    I suppose “Milwaukee is a Great Lakes Star” makes everyone puff out their chests a little more than “Based on Recent Estimates of Growth Over a Short Period of Time (Which We Should Always Treat with Caution), Milwaukee’s Population Has Grown Faster Than Other Cities.”

  6. JonMann says:

    The city’s Latino population grew from about 40k to 100k from 1990 to 2010. Most off that growth now is from natural increase. Without these first gen immigrants, and now second gen Americans, the city would have continued its pop decline.

  7. Damien says:

    Census estimates that I have show the City of Milwaukee has even started growing again. However, the percentage increase is very small. Milwaukee is a large city with many different neighborhoods and I have not seen the population estimates broken down by different geographic sections of the city. Without having any data it would seem to me that the parts of the city within a mile or two of Lake Michigan are where all of the growth is at and that the population in the middle of the city may even be declining based on stories I’ve heard about increases in foreclosures. I’d be interested to see the percent increase of population of the parts of the city by the lake (East Side, Downtown, Third Ward and Bayview) compared to other fast growing cities in the metro area and throughout the state.

  8. Will Sebern says:

    Population growth is happening in neighborhoods other than those near the Lake. The combined populations of Silver City, Burnham Park and Layton Park on Milwaukee’s South Side grew 26.8% from 2000 (16,730) to 2010 (21,218).

  9. Matt says:

    This is also anecdotal, but I recently moved back to the east side after many years in NYC, and I know of several people who have moved (or are thinking about moving) to Milwaukee from Chicago and we all had a similar reason: we wanted to live in an urban environment with all of the benefits of that, but we wanted a lower cost of living. I’m not a suburb guy and multiple bars/restaurants/stores within walking distance is non-negotiable to me. I find driving everywhere wholly depressing and a complete waste of time, and Milwaukee (at least as far as the string of neighborhoods along the lake from Shorewood to Bay View) provides just about everything you could want for that. I understand that for something as significant as population growth people like me aren’t going to particularly move the needle, but still, in my little world, the trend of urban living (even for those with kids) is what everyone is doing. In NYC, the people I know think the suburbs consist of the Upper West Side/Morningside Heights or Park Slope and you couldn’t force them to LI or Westchester at gunpoint, while the farthest out in Milwaukee that people I know are willing to go is Tosa, and the development of the village and along E. North Ave I think is an indication of urban sensibilities combined with a desire for a bit more space. Milwaukee has a lot going for it in urban growth, and the opportunity to make great strides in the coming years. I hope the trends toward this growth that have happened over the last decade continue.

  10. Stevemanowicz says:

    It looks like Green Bay may be the brightest of the dim Great Lakes stars, with an estimated population growth of 1.6 % between 2010 and 2013. Still, thanks for an eye-opening posting, Bruce. And let’s hear it for the western shore of Lake Michigan.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us