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Ideas

Boston’s population boom speeds up

What happened to make the city lose hundreds of thousands of people—and why it’s now growing at its fastest pace in years

In 2013, Boston is a denser city than in decades, and its gravitational pull only seems to be increasing. According to figures released last month, the city is now growing faster than its suburbs—and, in fact, faster than any urban area northeast of New Jersey. Over a two-year span culminating in July 2012, Boston grew 3.1 percent from the official 2010 count, the Census Bureau estimates, to 636,479 people.

It’s not just the city proper. If you look at the other New England cities of 50,000 people or more—noted on these maps—you see that in general, the closer these sizable cities were to Boston, the faster they grew. (An exception: the similarly fast-growing cities along southern Connecticut’s I-95 and commuter rail corridor, which fall into the orbit of New York City.) This is an acceleration of a trend that began in 2000-2010, when Boston grew faster than the rest of New England for the first time in more than a century.

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The new numbers give some credence to the idea that urban life is becoming more popular: Most major American cities gained residents, and faster than their suburbs. But the pattern is particularly striking because Boston, like many older cities, spent much of the 20th century in population free fall. At its peak population in 1950, the city contained, remarkably, nearly 165,000 more people: a total of 801,444. Over the next few decades, that number plummeted, reaching a low of 562,994 in 1980. Only now is the population truly beginning to rebound, though it may never return to the heights of mid-century.

What happened to make all those people leave—and what is luring new residents to take their place? After World War II, New England saw a huge increase in suburban housing, and many Bostonians decamped for the suburbs. Meanwhile, “urban renewal” efforts took their toll on the city, and residential neighborhoods like the West End and the New York Streets were demolished. During the 1960s, the city actually lost housing units, and that decade was followed by 30 years of negligible construction in houses and apartments.

Families changed, too. The average household size shrank, as Bostonians had fewer kids and saw more people living alone; from 3.2 in 1960, there are now just 2.3 people per household in Boston. Another less heralded reason for Boston’s population drop may have been a shortage of immigrants. The foreign-born share of the US population hit a post-Civil War low of 4.7 percent in the 1970 Census, when many major cities seemed to be dying.

But gradually, the tide began to wash back in. Following the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished favoritism toward European immigrants, the foreign-born population rose steadily, from 8.7 percent of the Massachusetts population in 1970 to 15 percent in 2010. In recent years, new residents have been lured by the labor market; metropolitan Boston’s job market is stronger than in most major American cities, and stronger than just about anywhere else in New England. Finally, despite smaller household sizes, places to live are on the rebound. A construction boom that began at the turn of the century, with an increase of some 20,000 housing units, is responsible for much of the city’s new growth. With young adults in particular becoming less likely to own cars, more development in areas with public transit seems like a good investment.

Thanks to thousands of new residential units in Dorchester and Roxbury and almost entirely new neighborhoods downtown and on the South Boston Waterfront, the Hub’s growth rate is picking up steam. And with the Boston area’s unemployment rate consistently below the national average (5.7 percent at last count), a climb back in the direction of that 1950 high is conceivable. As long as the city isn’t hit with an economic slump, a crime wave, or rising seas, the hopes of job-seekers and housing developers are likely to push Boston’s population beyond what many of its
present-day residents have ever seen.

Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer and a contributor to The A.V. Club and to MassINC’s INCSpot blog.
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