On Thursday in a CribChatter post on real estate market conditions I made a series of comments to the effect that densely populated urban areas were losing their appeal to the masses as evidenced by recent population growth trends. Well that sure set off a firestorm of debate - actually it was a pretty one sided debate with me standing alone by my thesis. However, that's to be expected on a blog where most of the participants have made the decision to live in a city.
As someone who is very close to becoming a property owner in Chicago, I'm actually rather obsessed with the question of where people want to live. So, since Thursday, I've been poking around in the data some more to figure out if I could get a clearer picture of what the population growth trend in the US looks like. I created a heat map of the population growth, measured by percentage increase from 2000 - 2010, by Metropolitan Statistical Area (a little bit less than 185 of them). You can see it below and if you click on it you can see a larger version of the map. The range goes from -15% (white) to +45% (dark green).
As I am sure has been covered by many others before, you can see that the population is either not growing or declining in the northeast and the Midwest and growing in the south and west. To me it looks like it is shifting from colder, more densely populated, and less business friendly environments.
Now one could write a graduate thesis on this topic using multivariate regression analysis to really determine the impact that population density has on population shifts but I don't have the time or the inclination to do that. However, I did do a rather simplistic analysis sorting the metro areas by density and it sure looks to me like people are favoring the less densely populated cities. In the graph below I split the metro areas into 3 buckets based upon density and then calculated the average growth rate between 2000 and 2010 for the metro areas in those buckets. The high density bucket contains the 10 largest metro areas, the medium density bucket contains the next 17, and the lowest density bucket contains 151.
As you can see the highest density metro areas grew only 3.3% on average during the decade. That bucket contains Chicago and the surrounding area, which had a population density of 987 people/ square mile in 2000 and only grew by 4% during the decade. My conclusion is that there is a limit to the extent to which people are willing to be stacked up on top of each other.