Michigan growth czar should know where to look

The popular places for people in America have changed

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has hired a first-ever state growth officer and set up a council to recommend policies to reverse Michigan’s population losses. The governor and her new subordinate ought to notice that things have changed. People are moving to different places than they used to before the pandemic, and that ought to guide any official who wishes to grow the state.

The common progressive misconception is that massive public spending is the way to grow cities. It does not, however, align with post-pandemic trends.

Even before the pandemic, this sentiment didn’t give population trends justice. If dense urban areas were the places attracting people, cities would have grown faster than suburbs. Instead, growth was shared between central cities and their suburbs. Sometimes the central city grew faster, and sometimes the suburbs grew faster. But on the whole, the places that were growing fastest grew both their urban core and the areas around them.

This is a chart of the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas, comparing the growth of the main city and their suburbs from 2016 to 2019. Every metropolitan statistical area is a dot. How much the city grew is how far right the dot is, and how much the suburbs grew is how high the dot is.

The city of Austin, for instance, grew its population by 4.2%, while the population of its suburbs grew 11.3%.

The cities are all clumped around a trend line that leads up and to the right. In other words, cities and suburbs grew together.

Since 2019, however, the connection between growing cities and growing suburbs is no longer there.

Instead, this chart shows that some cities are gaining population and more cities are losing population, while the suburbs are growing.

When governors told everyone to go home in 2020, more people found their home outside the city limits. Only 17 of the central cities in the largest 50 metropolitan areas increased their populations from 2019 to 2022, while the populations of 39 of the suburbs of these areas grew. The suburbs gained 1.8 million people while cities lost 655,000 people. That’s different from the three years before the pandemic, when cities and suburbs both grew.

The cities that grew the most are not the poster children of new urbanism. Over the past three years, the three fastest-growing cities were Orlando, Buffalo and Jacksonville.

The cities that lost the most population were San Francisco, Detroit and Boston. San Francisco and Boston have been venerated by many urban enthusiasts, but not so much by their own populations, it seems.

The fastest growing areas are the Austin, Raleigh and Jacksonville metropolitan areas. Austin’s growth came from its suburbs, which grew 15.5% while the city proper was down 0.5%. The city of Raleigh grew 0.5% and its suburbs grew 9.8%. The city of Jacksonville, mocked as it is, increased its population by 6.6%, more than its 4.8% suburban growth.

The areas that lost the most people are the San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles metropolitan statistical areas. The San Francisco and San Jose areas had the biggest swing from growth to loss. The San Francisco area grew by 1.0% before the pandemic and was down 3.8% after. The San Jose area was up 0.2% before the pandemic and down 3.4% after. People are fleeing California in general and its largest cities in particular. The progressive leviathan of the West Coast no longer draws people like it once did.

The lesson here is that things have changed. Unfortunately, it sounds like Whitmer is reading from an old playbook. “Growing Michigan Together is about investing in our people, places, talent, and education,” she said. It’s unlikely that Orlando is the fastest growing city in the nation because the Florida state government spent a lot of money on the town.

Lawmakers ought to focus on the things that matter to people, rather than their assumptions about what matters. What matters to people has changed. The hot spots are different from the spots where they used to be. Let’s hope the people the governor has hired to improve state population growth notice this.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.