Half Of America’s Cities Are Depopulating—We Could Be Headed For A Ghost Town Era

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Half of America’s Cities Are DepopulatingEd Freeman - Getty Images


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  • By studying population trends and forecasting models, a group of researchers have come to believe that nearly 15,000 U.S. cities will face noticeable depopulation by 2100.

  • Populated areas of the cities in question could experience a decline of up to 44 percent.

  • Projections call for the biggest drops in city populations to occur in the Northeast and Midwest.


No city in the Northeast or Midwest is safe from a trend toward depopulation. And just because states such as Texas and Utah experience growth now, doesn’t mean it will last. At least, not according to new research. Major depopulation is coming for the United States, and it’s coming fast.

A new study published in Nature Cities forecasts the behavior of U.S. populations by investigating a variety of trends, data, and models. The results paint a rough picture of the future for cities across the country.

“We found that, by 2100, close to half of the nearly 30,000 cities in the United States will face some sort of population decline, representing 12-23 percent of the population of these 30,000 cities and 27-44 percent of the populated area,” the authors wrote. “The implications of this massive decline in population will bring unprecedented challenges.”

The project started as an analysis commissioned by the Illinois Department of Transportation to analyze coming transportation challenges within the state due to population changes, but the data led the study’s authors to expand the research across the country. Looking at more than just the nation’s largest cities creates a robust picture of the scale of change ushered in by depopulation.

By extracting data from both the U.S. Census for the past 20 years and the annual American Community Survey, and pairing it with a mixture of climate forecasts known as Shared Socioeconomic Pathways, the researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago show that 2100 could look plenty different for U.S. cities.

The depopulation won’t be everywhere, however. And it may be tricky to predict. The study estimates that the largest losses will come from the Northeast and Midwest as people move to the South and West. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some growth, though, in the areas anticipating depopulation, or that every city in the growth zones will prosper.

Cities such as Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh—and even currently growing cities like Louisville, Syracuse, and New Haven—may all experience population collapse. Vermont and West Virginia are most at risk, with the potential for 80 percent of cities in those states to shrink. Illinois, Mississippi, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Michigan aren’t far behind, with up to 75 percent of cities in jeopardy of dropping population.

The losses may not always be inter-state. The paper’s authors believe that California, for example, will see population loss along the southern coast as people flock to the northern coast. They also expect that the population growth currently being enjoyed by Texas and Utah will reverse.

“The projections suggest that, by 2100, all states will have cities facing some type of depopulation, except the District of Columbia and Hawaii,” the authors wrote.

When nearly a quarter of an entire city vacates, leaving behind swaths of unused area, it can disrupt basic services—everything from the power grid to water pressure to transit services. “Resource distribution challenges will persist unless a paradigm shift happens away from growth-based planning alone,” the authors wrote.

And pairing depopulation with aging infrastructure creates an entirely new set of social, economic, and policy challenges. “Having an estimation of future population trends can assist authorities in better planning and designing cities and their infrastructure systems for depopulation,” the authors wrote.

This isn’t just about the major metropolitan areas, which have been the sole focus of past studies. Instead, this survey looked at population centers irrespective of their size. And the news for smaller cities isn’t pretty. In fact, depopulation may pose even more challenges in these areas, which have more limited financial, human, and natural resource wells from which to draw.

Typically, depopulation occurs as working-age residents move elsewhere to take new jobs, leaving the cities they vacated with an older population. That can exacerbate economic and city service challenges.

Depopulation could also have other ramifications, such as the closing of stores in certain areas that can lead to food deserts. Transportation systems may have to adapt to help vulnerable residents reach needed services. “It is imperative to consider how depopulation will impact all infrastructure systems,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, with infrastructure deserts already existing, the challenges to meet the basic needs of residents will be amplified.”

The study authors hope decision makers adapt now. “What is certain is that an important cultural shift in planning and engineering communities is needed,” they wrote, “away from conventional growth-based planning to accommodate a dramatic demographic shift.”

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