ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: My city is bigger than your city, or is it?

July 11, 2005

Does anyone remember the World Almanac? Perhaps not. But in the Barkey household of many years back, it was a well-worn little book. Especially those pages where populations were listed for every city in the country. That's where we could proudly look up our own hometown and see where we stood against everyone else.

We're still doing that, of course. The paper books are gone, naturally, replaced by Web pages from the Census Bureau that pop up at the click of a mouse button. But the tallies of population are still a point of pride for many of us.

If that is so, the 2004 Census estimates of Indiana cities and towns are bringing many of us depressing news. According to just-released estimates, 13 of the state's 20 largest cities have lost population since 2000. Some older, well-established cities, like Anderson and Terre Haute, no longer count among the state's 10 largest, while fast-growing areas like Carmel and Fishers are vaulting in the other direction.

It's a huge issue for mayors in both kinds of communities. Population decline puts pressure on city budgets, as payouts from the state and federal governments that are based on head counts shrink. And the loss hits schools particularly hard, since school-age population falls faster when younger people migrate away.

For fast-growing areas, infrastructure problems are simply enormous. Their school-age populations are exploding, and ramping up to meet the need is expensive today, and may yield excess capacity tomorrow. And the congestion of transportation arteries is ferocious.

But what does it mean in the bigger picture? Indiana is not like Arizona, Nevada or even Texas, where empty moving vans with license plates from back East build up every day in the parking lots. There is respectable population growth in Indiana-we grew 9.6 percent in the 1990s, after all. But most of the action in population growth here occurs as patterns of migration within the state, and within its larger urban areas.

And the dominant pattern has been growth at the fringe of metropolitan areas. If you rank all the cities in the state by population growth since 2000, you have to get all the way down to 17th place-held by Mishawaka's 1,432-person growth-to find a place not in the orbit of either Indianapolis or Chicago. Whatever the limits are to growth at the edges, we obviously haven't found them yet.

The reasons aren't hard to understand. The prosperity created by the steady growth in the economy has created increased demand for all kinds of things, but especially for housing, land and space of all kinds. And those needs, like it or not, are more cheaply met through greenfield development.

Nor are we alone. Very few older cities across the nation are experiencing significant population growth, unless they have pushed their borders out to follow, or anticipate, the growth. In fact, with much of this ex-urban growth occurring in unincorporated areas, the idea of ranking cities by population begins to lose its appeal. A glance at township growth patterns reveals that supposedly shrinking places like Bloomington, Evansville or Fort Wayne are in fact surrounded by jurisdictions moving in the other direction.

As many a big-city mayor will point out, these hot spots of growth on the fringe owe much of their prosperity to the city at the center. It is said that 90 percent of the medical doctors in the Indianapolis area live in Hamilton County. What would all these folks do for a living if the rest of the metro area were to disappear?

It's a pretty silly question. But it's just as silly to wring our hands over the poor population growth of our cities when folks move on to greener pastures.

Barkey is an economist and director of economic and policy study at the College of Business, Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at pbarkey@ibj.com.
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