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Chapter 3: Population Distribution

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Americans are a metropolitan people. Most families live in metropolitan areas; most births, deaths, and migration take place in them. But the traditions and nostalgia are farm and small town.


Our transition from rural to metropolitan has been rapid. At the beginning of this century, 60 percent of the people lived on farms or in villages. When people now 50 years old were born, half the population was rural. In fact, it is only those below age 25 whose life experience is more attuned to a society that is two-thirds metropolitan and becoming more so. Perhaps we have been slow to cope with life in the metropolis because it is so new on the American scene. We struggle to solve the new problems of a metropolitan nation using old institutions suited to a simpler past. As one expert said to the Commission: “Small wonder we have an urban crisis; we are still trying to learn to live in this new demographic and technological world.”

This country has experienced a demographic revolution in population distribution as well as in national population growth. Today, 69 percent of the American people live in metropolitan areas—cities of 50,000 or more, and the surrounding county or counties that are economically integrated with the city. Between 1960 and 1970, the population of the United States grew 13 percent, while the metropolitan population grew 23  percent.2 Nearly all metropolitan growth took place through the growth of suburbs and territorial expansion into previously rural areas. The United States has become mainly a nation of cities and their environs.

The surroundings in which metropolitan people live vary considerably, ranging from inner city to open country. And the metropolitan influence, through the highway and communications systems, affects people far beyond the central cities and adjacent counties. Distinctions between rural and urban people are diminishing. Some “urban” people reside in the countryside, and “rural” people can be found in the poverty areas of our cities.

Metropolitan population growth is a basic feature of the social and economic transformation of the United States—the transition from an agrarian, to an industrial, and now to a service-oriented economy. Metropolitan growth is the geographical dimension of these changes. Reflected in this process are increases in the productivity of agriculture, and the new dominance of commercial, professional, and industrial activities that thrive where people, equipment, money, and know-how are concentrated in space. It is a universal experience. As one of our consultants observed:

The concentration of national population within limited areas of national territory appears to be characteristic of practically all developed countries. It has little to do with overall population size or density.... but rather is a reflection of the massive reorientation of population growth and life styles associated with the industrial and technological revolutions of the last two centuries. Enormous changes in modes of population settlement, land use, and resource exploitation accompany these revolutions.3


Metropolitan growth is the form that national and regional population growth have taken. The national population grew by 24 million in the 1960’s. The metropolitan population grew by more than 26 million, while the nonmetropolitan population declined as migration continued, rural areas became suburban, and many smaller cities grew to metropolitan size. The states with rapid population growth—for example, California, Florida, and Arizona—have been states with rapid growth of metropolitan population. The regional shifts in population, from north to west and south, from the midcontinent to the coasts, have been focused in rapidly growing metropolitan areas.

The process has brought efficiency and confusion, affluence and degradation, individual advancement and alienation. The buildup of transport and communications has made possible increased contact and exchange, increased concentration and dispersal, and increased segregation of activities and people. While the metropolitan economy has reached new heights of productivity, the people who staff it, their families, and the businesses and roads that serve them, have settled miles and miles of formerly rural territory, creating a new enlarged community—a real city with common problems but no common government to manage it. Minority migrants have found better jobs and education, but in so doing have traded the isolation imposed by rural racism for the isolation of the inner city and the institutional racism of metropolitan America. And, the growth and dispersion of the metropolitan population has brought wholly new problems of environmental management as well as social organization.

Population growth is metropolitan growth in the contemporary United States, and it means different things to different people.

To the man in Los Angeles, it means rapid growth throughout Southern California. The outcome is often unplanned and haphazard development that falls far short of realizing the full aesthetic potential of the climate and natural surroundings. Tract housing developments are marked off by smoggy and noisy expressways. It is the “good life” colliding with a fragile environment under palm trees.

To a housewife in Nebraska, it means the loss of population in her small farming town—it reached its peak population in 1920. Family, friends, and neighbors, particularly the young and better trained, have moved away. Tax revenues are shrinking and essential public services are becoming more limited. She and her husband can remain where they are, but only at the cost of a difficult and uncertain livelihood.

To a black person in Harlem, the process of metropolitan growth means discrimination that keeps him in a ghetto area with crumbling old apartments and abandoned houses. And, it means that it is harder than ever to reach the jobs opening up in the suburbs as companies shift their operations outward.

Each of these problems relates to a different part of the country and a different set of- circumstances. All are related to the evolution of a metropolitan America.


Metropolitan Growth4

In its geographical dimension, population growth has been a dual process of concentration on a national scale and dispersion and expansion at the local level. More and more of our people live in metropolitan areas. At the same time, the largest central cities have been losing population, and the territory of metropolitan settlement has expanded even faster than population. Consequently, average metropolitan densities have declined somewhat.

The older industrial areas of the north were the first to develop a high degree of metropolitan concentration. Two-thirds of the northeast was urban in 1900; by 1970, this proportion was four-fifths, and more than one of every two Americans residing in a metropolitan area lived in the north. Recently, however, the north has lost much of its magnetism. Instead, the most rapid growth has been in the south and west where migration, supplementing growth from natural increase, has produced high metropolitan and regional growth rates.

In 1900, more than four-fifths of the south was rural. By 1970, over half was metropolitan. The Atlanta area grew 37 percent during the 1960’s. In Texas, the metropolitan population grew 24 percent from 1960 to 1970 and accounted for virtually all of the state’s growth. At the end of the decade, three-fourths of the state population was metropolitan. In the west, the Arizona metropolitan population grew 42 percent from 1960 to 1970. Migration contributed as much to Arizona’s growth as did natural increase—the balance of births over deaths. Over 80 percent of the growth was concentrated in the state’s two metropolitan areas— Phoenix and Tucson—so that in 1970 three-fourths of the population was metropolitan. Migration accounted for half of California’s growth in the 1960’s; but, by the end of the decade, there were signs that the annual net migration from other states was very low if not zero. Still, because past migrants included so many young adults at the beginning of their childbearing years, state growth remained high. The degree of metropolitan concentration in California was also high. In 1970, it was the highest in the nation at 93 percent.

The most rapid growth in the past decade occurred in metropolitan areas with populations of one to two million. As a class, these areas grew an average of 27 percent, twice the rate for the total population of the United States. Thirteen of the 21 areas in this size class are in the south and west, and all areas of this size that grew more than 27 percent are in the south and west.

The 12 areas having more than two million people grew at an average rate of 12 percent, slightly under the rate for the total population of the United States. As a class, they grew just enough to retain their natural increase. Because they are so large, their slow growth rate nonetheless resulted in the addition of six million people. These large areas are mainly the old urban centers of the north. Of the 12 areas in this class, only Los Angeles and San Francisco are in the west, and only Baltimore and Washington are in the south.




Table 3.1

Metropolitan Population by Size Class, 1970


Population Increase,   1960 to 1970 (in 1970 boundaries)






Metropolitan Area Population. 1970

Number of Areas  1970

Population in 1970 (millions)

Number (millions)

Percent Increase

All Areas





2,000,000 or more





1,000,000 to 2,000,000





500,000 to 1,000,000





250,000 to 500,000 60 20 3 16





Under 250,000






U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Population and Housing: 1970, General Demographic Trends for Metropolitan Areas, 1960 to 1970, Final Report PHC (2), 1971. The figures shown in this table differ somewhat from those cited elsewhere in the text due to differences in area definitions. If one compares the population of metropolitan areas as defined in 1960 to the corresponding population within areas as defined in 1970, there is an increase of 26 million people. But, if we look at growth occurring within fixed metropolitan boundaries as defined in 1970, as in this table, there is an increase of 20 million. The latter figure does not reflect increases due to territorial extension of 1960 areas or the growth of additional areas to metropolitan status between 1960 and 1970.



Figure 3.1: Percent of Population in Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas by States: 1970
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Figure 3.2: Percent of Change in Total Population by Counties: 1960 to 1970
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Sources of Metropolitan Growth5

The total metropolitan population grew by 26 million in the 1960’s. About one-third of this growth was from territorial expansion of existing centers and the emergence of other communities into metropolitan status; two-thirds was the result of population growth within constant boundaries.

Within metropolitan boundaries as defined in 1960, 74 percent of growth was natural increase—the excess of births over deaths—and 26 percent was net migration, consisting of immigrants as well as migrants from nonmetropolitan areas of the United States. As the nonmetropolitan population becomes a smaller fraction of the nation’s total, its relative importance as a source of migration declines. If current trends continue, other parts of the United States will contribute four million migrants to the metropolitan population between now and the year 2000, while immigrants will add about 10 million.6

The dominance of natural increase and the smaller role of migration show how far metropolitan growth has advanced. When two-thirds of the people are metropolitan, their fertility has a greater effect on the growth of metropolitan population than does migration from nonmetropolitan areas. Natural increase is the dominant source of metropolitan growth because we have had so much migration to metropolitan areas in the past.



We are a geographically mobile society. Expansion and movement have been central themes in a history in which metropolitan growth is but a recent chapter.

Migration is basically a process of adjustment. For the individual, it represents a personal adjustment to changing life circumstances and opportunities. For most of us, moving has led to better things. Whether across town or across the country, movement provides access to areas of greater opportunity. Immobility of people often reflects their isolation from opportunities available in the mainstream of society—social, economic, and political.

For the nation as a whole, migration helps achieve a balance between social and economic activities on the one hand and population numbers on the other. As we move about the country, our actions create broad social, economic, and political realignments, as well as adjustments in our personal lives. Balance is achieved through three broad types of movement: (1) the shift from economically depressed regions, often rural, to areas of expanding employment and higher wages, usually metropolitan; (2) the movement of the population within metropolitan areas—the flight from the central city to the suburbs—historically an adjustment to changing housing needs and a desire for more space; and (3) the system of migration flows among metropolitan areas by which migrants participate in a nationwide job market, moving to areas offering economic advancement and often personal environmental preferences.

Nearly 40 million Americans, or one in five, change homes each year. Roughly one in 15—a total of 13 million people—migrates across a county line.7 These rates have remained virtually unchanged over the quarter century for which data are available. In part because of the relative decline in rural population, the majority of people moving to metropolitan areas, especially those moving long distances, are now coming from other urban areas.

Whether it is a short or a long haul, those who move are typically the better educated, more skilled young adults, seeking a better life. Nearly a third of all migrants are in their twenties, and they bring with them young children: A tenth of all migrants are between the ages of one and four.

Migration, then, represents more than the numbers suggest. Where five million young adults take their young children and reproductive potential each year affects where future population growth will take place, and where heavy demands for housing and health and educational services will be felt. It also determines where some of our most capable young people, with most of their productive lives ahead, will contribute to the nation’s future.

Especially since World War II, metropolitan migrations have included large numbers of blacks. Their transition from rural to metropolitan life has been faster, more recent, and more extensive than that of whites; 74 percent of the black population of the United States is now metropolitan, compared with 68 percent of whites. Blacks, more than whites, tend to live in the larger metropolitan areas, and four-fifths of them live in the central cities.8

Recent streams of migration among regions also have varied substantially by race. In the 1960’s, there was a net movement of whites out of the north, to the west and south. Blacks moved from the south to the north and west. The net effect was an exchange of population between the north and south, with the west experiencing net in-migration of both whites and blacks. In the south, it was the nonmetropolitan areas that experienced the heaviest outmigration of blacks. The main areas receiving white in-migrants were Florida, the Washington-Baltimore area, and large metropolitan areas in Texas.9


Local Variations

Differences in migration produce large differences in the rates at which individual metropolitan areas grow. The Washington, D.C. area, for example, grew 39 percent in the 1960’s, but Pittsburgh’s population declined. Although the total metropolitan population of Texas grew 24 percent, three-fifths of its metropolitan areas grew slowly or not at all.10

Most migrants to an individual area come from other metropolitan areas. What is happening is that a small number of areas are attracting a disproportionate number of people moving from one metropolitan area to another. Between 1960 and 1965, some 60 metropolitan areas, accounting for 25 percent of all the metropolitan population, drew migrants at a rate at least twice that for the total system of metropolitan centers, and absorbed nearly half of all metropolitan growth. In this same period, 82 other metropolitan areas had more people leaving than arriving. The population size of the fastest growing areas ranged from small to very large, but the lion’s share of metropolitan growth was taken by the larger of these fast-growing areas.11

With the drying up of nonmetropolitan sources of migration and a general decline in the rate of natural increase, migration among metropolitan centers might result in some 60 to 80 metropolitan areas actually losing population by 1980. Many others would simply not grow. We indicate later in this report why we believe that the usual apprehensions over this prospect are ill-founded. But we also believe that far more research is needed to understand the potential consequences of such trends.


Rural Areas and Small Towns

Over the decades, there has been an immense transfer of population and reproductive potential through migration from town and countryside to urban areas. The total rural population in 1900 was 46 million, or 60 percent of the population of the United States. Seventy years later, rural population had risen by only eight million to a total of 54 million, while the total national population had nearly tripled. By 1970, the rural population was only 26 percent of the total.’2

High fertility rates in rural areas would have produced pressures for outmigration in any event. But the mechanization of agriculture made a small number of workers very productive, reduced the job market, and added to migration pressures. Since 1940, the farm population has dropped from 32 million to less than 10 million. Today, farmers, farm workers, and their families are only five percent of the nation’s population.’3

Early in the century, those who moved were mainly white—the children of rural immigrants of the late 19th century, and people from Appalachia, the Ozarks, and other depressed rural areas. More recently, there was the great movement of rural blacks from the south to the largest cities of the north and west.

Most migrants, regardless of race, bettered themselves economically, and in terms of their standard of living. In a recent government survey, most said their move was a success: They were better off financially, and were happier as a result of the move.

Here is Mrs. Mariah Gilmore, aged 60, who lived in the tiny hamlet of DeValls Bluff, 30 miles from Little Rock until her husband died in 1967:


I was without an income. After his death, I looked for work, but was unable to find anything other than ironing, which didn’t pay enough money to maintain a house and buy groceries, too.

There were months that I might pick or chop cotton, but due to this being seasonal work, I couldn’t make a living... I had to come to Little Rock to see about finding a job because I didn’t have nothing to live on.14


Mrs. Gilmore found a job as a maid in a hotel for $35 a week. She also found her way into a federally funded work-training program operated by Pulaski County. She was eventually able to take a better position at the University of Arkansas Medical Center in Little Rock. Although she improved her economic status, Mrs. Gilmore confesses she would really prefer to live in DeValls Bluff, if she could have the same job. DeValls Bluff is still home to her.

The migration from rural areas has been such that in the past decade nearly half of all counties lost population. These losses occurred in a belt from Canada to the Rio Grande between the Mississippi River and the Rockies, in the deep south, and in the Appalachian Mountains. For example, four-fifths of the counties in West Virginia declined in population in the 1960’s, with virtually all counties losing population through net outmigration. West Virginia lost one-third of its people in their twenties by migration during the decade.

The territory involved in this rural exodus is immense; but, relative to the national population, the number of people leaving is small. The growth of the nation has been so great that even if all rural counties were repopulated to their historical maximum, they would absorb a population equivalent to no more than five years of national growth.’5

Nationally, decline in the farm population has been offset by growth in the nonfarm rural population, made possible by growth in nonfarm employment. These people now outnumber the farm population by five to one. If this employment trend should spread, rural population may begin to stabilize in some areas where depopulation has been the rule. Such signs are already apparent, as in the recent reversal of the trend in Arkansas.

Paralleling the decline in the rural percentage of population has been a decline in the proportion of the population located in towns and cities of less than 50,000. Population growth has pushed many of these places into the metropolitan category, but others have lost population. Such is the history of many small towns in Iowa and the Dakotas. In such towns, population decline reflects a national system that increasingly requires critical minimum concentrations of economic activities in one location. Lacking adequate roads, power lines, sewers, proximity to large urban centers, and other advantages that would attract new kinds of economic activity and revive growth, they suffer from chronic high-level unemployment and a shrinking economic base. This triggers outmigration, mainly of the young and better educated, and leaves behind an older population that is disadvantaged in terms of education and training and less likely to depart, even in the face of economic hardship. In this case, migration removes surplus population, but it also tends to weaken further the town’s competitive position. The future of these ~ places and, more important, the future of the people who live in them, present problems that need continued government attention.

Yet this decline is far from universal. More than half of all nonmetropolitan municipalities grew during each of the last three decades. Between 1940 and 1970, the number of nonmetropolitan places increased from 12,800 to 13,800 and their total population grew from 23 to 33 million. An increasing percentage of this population is in places over 10,000. The places closest to metropolitan areas were more likely to grow than those situated in remote locations.’6

Nor is it clear that population growth is good for all small towns or cities any more than for all metropolitan areas. For some types of activities, recreation for example, many rural areas may already have more people than desirable, even though density and population size are well below urban levels. The typical small college town, which has experienced rapid growth in the last decade, might well benefit from stabilization of its population as college enrollment levels off.

The continued growth of some small towns and cities, and the vitality of others whose populations are not growing, challenge the popular notion that small town life is disappearing. On the other hand, the association between growth and proximity to a metropolitan center indicates that many of the small towns are growing because they are part of an extensive metropolitan area whose influence goes beyond the census-defined boundaries. Although rural in physical setting, the life style is urban. Many of these areas have become part of the process of metropolitan growth and dispersal.


Metropolitan Dispersal

The territory of metropolitan America has expanded even faster than its population. Roads and communications extend the reach of today’s metropolitan areas deep into their hinterland. Villages and towns become part of the city-system, grow, and the metropolis expands. At the same time, internal changes sharpen differences within areas. Major variations in ethnic diversity, environmental hazard, socioeconomic status, and income, as well as in fertility and mortality exist within rather than between metropolitan areas. Moreover, the most extensive depopulation in the contemporary United States is occurring in the central cities of metropolitan areas.

Fifteen of the 21 central cities with a 1960 population of one-half million or more had lost population by 1970.17 In fact, declining central cities lost more people in the 1960’s than were lost by declining rural counties. Over half the 1970 metropolitan population lived outside the central city, and suburban areas captured almost all the metropolitan growth during the decade. Continuing dispersal and expansion means that the density of the central cities and of the great metropolitan areas as a whole is falling slightly as the border gets pushed further and further outward.

The territorial expansion of metropolitan areas has resulted from the movement of business and the more affluent and white population out of the central city, and from a shift in the locus of new growth—residential, industrial, commercial—to the expanding periphery. These changes have been so pervasive that many suburban areas now provide all the basic services and facilities generally found in the city—shopping, jobs, and entertainment, as well as residences. The suburban resident has a decreasing need to come into the city. Many work at industries along the beltways circling many cities. Others, particularly white-collar workers, commute daily to the city, but otherwise live essentially a suburban life.

Simultaneous with this dispersal has been the concentration of the black population in the central city, entrenching the already established pattern of racial separation. Even among relatively affluent blacks, the proportion living in the suburbs is low compared to their white counterparts. In the 1960’s, the black population increased by a third. By 1970, 41 percent of metropolitan whites and 78 percent of metropolitan blacks lived in central cities. Suburbs continued to be almost totally white. Six central cities were over 50 percent black, and this number is expected to increase over the next decade.18

Outside the central city there is an extensive sorting-out process. Suburban communities typically are internally homogeneous, but differ from one another along social and economic lines, with the rich in some, the less affluent in others. Variations among suburbs are becoming as important as those between the central city and suburbs as a whole.

These processes—expansion and differentiation— pose critical problems for the contemporary United States. They do so in part because of the multiplicity of governmental jurisdictions encompassed and created by the expanding metropolis, and because of the ease with which the city line becomes the border between “them” and “us.”

The first problem is racial and economic separation—blacks and the poor in the inner city, whites and the better off in the suburbs. While job opportunities have been moving to suburban areas, the disadvantaged remain locked in declining areas of the central city. These areas have many of the same characteristics as the depopulating rural areas: a population with low skills and inadequate education, deteriorating and abandoned housing, poor public facilities. Conditions are aggravated by selective outmigration. Those who can, leave. Those unable to cope with the problems of social and economic isolation remain.

The demography of racial separation is grim. Blacks and other nonwhites, now 22 percent of central-city populations, are projected to comprise about 40 percent by the year 2000.19 Long before this average is reached by all cities, it will have been surpassed by many. At least in a geographical sense, the “two societies” envisioned by the Kerner Commission are emerging.

A second problem is the relationship of the “real city”—the functionally integrated metropolitan area—to the legal entities that are supposed to govern it. Since the turn of the century, the legal boundaries of the central city have remained relatively fixed, while the functional city has expanded to include many suburban jurisdictions as well. The Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently referred to this problem, pointing to the need to deal with problems of transportation, housing, and location of jobs in relation to other daily activities at the metropolitan level.20 Instead, we are trying to cope with the problems arising from a new form of collective living— metropolitan—with a fragmented political structure suited to the needs of an earlier era. Disparities exist between the resources and responsibilities of different units of local government. Core cities with limited and sometimes shrinking tax bases are still responsible for needy elements of the population—the elderly, poor, unemployed, and nonwhite—left behind by the suburban exodus.

A third problem lies in the expanding periphery of metropolitan areas. During the rapid expansion of suburban areas since World War II, we failed to plan for anticipated growth; instead, we allowed it to spread at will. Whether or not we are past a population explosion, it is clear that the land-use explosion of “spread city” is currently in full bloom. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the baby-boom generation will marry, have children, and set up house in the suburbs, creating a tremendous demand for the conversion of rural land to urban use. Without proper efforts to plan where and how future urban growth should occur, and without strong governmental leadership to implement the plans, the problems of sprawl, congestion, inadequate open space, and environmental deterioration will grow on an ever-increasing scale.

Figure 3.3 Urban Regions: Year 2000
Click to Enlarge


Public Attitudes

Partly because of the problems of urban living, partly as an expression of nostalgia for what is perceived as the “good old days,” and perhaps partly in anguish over the condition of modern life—for whatever reasons—Americans express dissatisfaction with the city and think something should be done. When asked where they would prefer to live, they show pronounced preferences for small towns and rural areas. Here are some of the results from our survey of public information and attitudes:


Table 3.2 Residential Location and Preferences, 1971



Where do you live now? (Percent)

Where would you prefer to live? (Percent)

Open Country



Small Town or City



Medium-Sized City or Suburb



Larger City or Suburb






Source:            National Opinion Survey conducted for the Commission by the Opinion Research Corporation, 1971.


Thus, 34 percent of people surveyed said they would prefer to live in open country, but only 12 percent of them were classified as actually living there now •21 These results correspond to the results of many similar national surveys. What do they mean?

A recent survey of Wisconsin residents asked the same questions, but added a question on preferred proximity to a large city. The results show a preference to live in smaller places within commuting distance of a metropolitan central city. In fact, if we take them at their word, 70 percent of the Wisconsin survey respondents would prefer to live near a metropolitan area, whereas only 54 percent now do.22

We do not know if the results of the Wisconsin survey reflect national attitudes. If they do, it means people want the best of both worlds—the serene and clean environment of rural areas and the opportunity and excitement of the metropolis. Perhaps it is not accidental that much metropolitan growth in fact occurs in peripheral areas with a semi-rural environment. Ironically, people moving to such areas typically find that they soon lose their more desirable aspects— semi-rural areas rapidly become suburban.

Even if current trends should prove to reflect majority preferences, about one-fourth of the population in medium- and large-sized metropolitan areas think that the place where they live is too big. Over half of the population feel that the federal government should “discourage further growth of large metropolitan areas” or should “try to encourage people and industry to move to smaller cities and towns.” One-third disagree, and the rest express no opinion. Americans are urban and becoming more so, but many people evidently dislike the trend 23


Where Do The Trends Lead Us?24

In 1970, about 71 percent of our population was metropolitan; it is expected to be 85 percent by the year 2000. (The census figure for 1970 was 69 percent. Our projections were based on a modified definition of metropolitan areas; hence the difference.)

Natural increase is the primary factor affecting the growth of metropolitan population as a whole. To measure its effect, we asked the Census Bureau to project growth within fixed (1970) metropolitan boundaries, supposing there were no additions to metropolitan population through territorial additions or migration from within the United States or from abroad. Even assuming growth at the 2-child rate, we found that the metropolitan population would grow by nearly 40 million people between 1970 and the year 2000, through natural increase alone.25 If to this we add migration, territorial expansion of existing areas, and the growth of other centers to metropolitan size, it is clear that a metropolitan future is assured.

If the national population should grow at the 2-child rate, projections based on recent trends indicate that there will be 225 million people living in metropolitan areas by the end of the century. This would represent the addition of 81 million people to the 144 million persons who comprised our metropolitan population in 1970. An average of three children per family would cause our metropolitan population to swell to a total of 273 million by the year 2000, an increase of 129 million over the 1970 figure. Thus, our metropolitan population at the end of the century will be nearly 50 million greater if American families average three rather than two children.

Where will these people live? In 1970, more than four out of every 10 Americans were living in a metropolitan area comprised of one million or more people. By the year 2000, the projections indicate that more than six of every 10 persons are likely to be living in these large areas. Not all of the additional people will be added to the 29 metropolitan areas of one million or more that existed in 1970. In the year 2000, there will be a total of 44 to 50 such places, depending on how fast the total population grows. If present trends continue, the locus of continued increases in our total population will be large metropolitan areas. This is to be expected so long as the total number of people in metropolitan areas keeps on growing.

We tried to learn how much the growth of the large metropolitan areas might be reduced if the growth of smaller, less congested places were stimulated. Commission researchers picked 121 places ranging in size from 10,000 to 350,000 whose growth in the past decade indicated that they might be induced to grow more rapidly in the future. They listed all places of this size that had grown faster than the national average during the 1960’s and were located more than 75 miles from any existing or projected metropolitan area of two million people or more.

Such places had a total population of 14 million in 1970. If they were to grow by 30 percent each decade, their population in the year 2000 would be about 31 million. If this were to happen, our calculations suggest that these places might absorb about 10 million of the growth which is otherwise expected to occur in areas of one million or more, assuming the 2-child national projection. However, these large areas would still in-crease by 70 million under the 2-child projection, and by 115 million under the 3-child projection. If the smaller areas were to grow faster than 30 percent, they would, of course, divert more growth from the large areas. But to obtain substantial effects, these smaller places would have to grow 50 percent per decade.26 At that point, one must ask if the cure is any better than the disease.

Moreover, most of the smaller areas which are capable of attracting many people are in urban regions, or would be by the year 2000. Thus, stimulating their growth would have the useful effect of decongesting settlement in urban regions, but would do little to retard urban region growth.

Figure 3.4: The Expanding Area of Urban Regions
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Urban Regions27

The evolution of urban communities has proceeded from farm, to small town, to city, to large metropolitan area. It is now proceeding to the urban region—areas of one million people or more comprised of a continuous zone of metropolitan areas and intervening counties within which one is never far from a city. The reach of the urban economy has so increased that the most logical scale at which to grasp the trend is at the urban region level.

There have been tremendous changes in the geographic scale at which we live. Transportation technology, particularly our extensive highway system, permits us to move great distances within a short period. Some people commute daily between New York and Boston or Washington. Urban people in search of open space and recreation travel considerable distances to enjoy a weekend camping trip. A century ago, Central Park was the city park for New York. Now the “city” is the urban region along the Atlantic seaboard and its park is the Shenandoah National Park on Skyline Drive. It is perhaps a weekend park, not one visited daily; but, on a three-day weekend, the license plates on visiting cars will be from Pennsylvania, New York, D.C., and Virginia. The scale at which we live is expanding well beyond formal metropolitan boundaries. In the future, our daily experience may well reach out into the far corners of urban regions and beyond.

An urban region is not a single “supercity”; it is a regional constellation of urban centers and their hinterland. Although substantial portions are comprised of more or less continuous geographic settlement, the urban region offers—and continues to provide—a variety of residential settings within the functional sphere of a metropolitan economy. This mosaic of environments ranges from rural (southern New Hampshire or Indio, California) to cosmopolitan (Chicago or Los Angeles). Such environments coexist within a common functional framework without intruding spatially on each other. Even in the largest urban region, running along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Virginia, and westward past Chicago, it is estimated that only one-fifth of the area is currently in urban use.

These regions grow not only through the increase of population but by geographic expansion. In effect, they are a product of the automobile era and new communication technology which encouraged the outward movement of industries and residences from the city proper. Density within these regions has remained relatively constant and low, even though population size has increased.

Urban regions appear to be a prominent feature of the demographic future of this country. In 1920, there were 10 urban regions with over one-third of the total population. By 1970, about three-fourths of the population of the United States lived in the urban regions which already exist or are expected to develop by 2000.

The total land area encompassed by urban regions is estimated to double in the period 1960 to 1980, while the number of such areas is expected to increase from 16 to at least 23. By 2000, urban regions will occupy one-sixth of the continental United States land area, and contain five-sixths of our nation’s people.

If our national population distributes itself accord-big to these projections, 54 percent of all Americans will be living in the two largest urban regions. The metropolitan belt stretching along the Atlantic seaboard and westward past Chicago would contain 41 percent of our total population. Another 13 percent would be in the California region lying between San Francisco and San Diego.

Even if the broad trends have been projected accurately, the experiences of individual metropolitan areas may differ considerably from the estimates prepared for us. Within the general system of metropolitan centers, some will probably stabilize or decline; others, having a disproportionate number of young people, or attracting much migration, will continue to grow rapidly, even if national population stabilizes. Finally, there may well be new frontiers of growth that have not yet been established or discovered by social scientists. Our projections, then, should be taken as a description of a possible future—one that is essentially the outcome of trends now observable—but not as a prediction of what will happen or a prescription of what is desirable.


Population Stabilization, Migration, and Distribution

How would stabilization of the national population affect migration and local growth? First, shifts in population composition—chiefly age and family structure—would alter the tempo of migration. Second, changes in the balance between natural increase and migration would influence local growth. Because of the momentum of past growth and the time it will take to achieve a stabilized population in the United States, the full effects will be long range.

An older population with smaller families would be slightly less mobile. Long-distance moves would be relatively less numerous because of the decline in the proportion of the population aged 20 to 24, which is most apt to move. Smaller families would reduce the need of repeated residential moves, since such moves are often an adjustment to changing housing needs.

Perhaps the most significant effect of population stabilization on the distribution of population is the most obvious: Zero growth for the nation will mean an average of zero growth for local areas. It may be that the most effective long-term strategy for stabilizing local growth is through national stabilization, not redistribution.

Stabilization would slow the growth of the largest metropolitan centers, which are already growing only at the same rate as the nation, and it would shift somewhat more of the available growth to small- and intermediate-size centers. Replacement-level fertility would mean that migration in and out of a metropolitan area would be an extremely important component of local growth; and continued selective growth through migration would tend to accentuate uneven growth among different metropolitan areas. Natural increase would no longer balance out net outmigration, so a significant number of metropolitan areas could be expected to lose population.

However, even if the population of our country were to stop growing today, we would still have problems associated with rural depopulation and metropolitan growth. Our large metropolitan areas would still have problems of congestion, pollution, and severe racial separation.

According to the Commission’s survey, 54 percent of Americans think that the distribution of population is a “serious problem”; half believe that, over the next 30 years, it will be at least as great a problem as population growth.28 This is in accordance with our belief that to reduce problems of population growth in no way absolves us of the responsibility to address the problems posed by the distribution of population.



Report TOC Chapter 2 Population Growth Top of Page Center for Research on Population and Security