Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been reading stories about people fleeing big cities for the suburbs, smaller towns, and rural areas. And, of course, here in Seattle, a lot of folks have talked about our city dying.
Well, it turns out, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Seattle’s death are an exaggeration. Not only did Seattle keep growing in 2020, but it grew by a healthy amount.
New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that between July 1, 2019, and July 1, 2020, Seattle had a net gain of about 16,400 residents, hitting a total population of 769,700. That pencils out to a growth rate of 2.2% last year.
And that means that among the 50 biggest U.S. cities, Seattle is — are you sitting down? — No. 1 for growth in 2020.
What about all those Sunbelt cities that everyone has been flocking to during the pandemic? Sure, they’re growing fast, but they were behind Seattle. Fort Worth, Texas, ranks No. 2, followed by Mesa, Arizona; Austin; and Tampa.
Seattle’s 2020 growth was actually pretty much in line with the numbers we saw back in the 2010s — and Seattle was also the fastest-growing city of the past decade. It doesn’t match our fastest growth rate, which exceeded 3%. But last year’s 2.2% actually beat out the rate of growth between 2018 and 2019, which was 1.4%.
Who would have thought Seattle’s growth would have picked up during the pandemic, when compared with year before?
The reports of big cities losing population weren’t completely off. Among the 50 most populous U.S. cities, 15 lost population during the pandemic, including some of our peer cities.
Most notably, San Francisco and San Jose both wound up in the bottom five for growth in 2020, losing more than 1% of their populations. San Francisco had been growing modestly throughout the 2010s, while San Jose first had a slight population loss in 2019.
Baltimore, which had been shrinking, shed the greatest percentage of its population in 2020, at slightly over 1.4%. After San Francisco and San Jose, New York was fourth, losing about 1%, followed by Long Beach, California.
For a change, Detroit did not rank in the bottom five, having lost a slightly smaller percentage than Long Beach. Boston, which grew each year through the 2010s, also lost population in 2020. And while Portland did grow last year, it wasn’t anything to write home about — just 0.4%.
The Census Bureau data doesn’t include any of the components of population change. In other words, we can’t see how much of Seattle’s growth was due to in-migration vs. out-migration, and we don’t know how many moved to the city from within Washington, from other states, or from other countries. The data also doesn’t show “natural growth” numbers — births vs. deaths.
That makes it a little tricky to understand how Seattle bucked the trend and had a healthy growth rate during the pandemic — or, to be specific, through the early months of the pandemic. If there was a turnaround in Seattle’s population growth after July 1, this data wouldn’t capture it.
Only one place in Washington, among those with at least 60,000 people, grew faster than Seattle last year: Kirkland had a 2.6% growth rate in 2020, and its population is now 95,400.
Bellevue’s population remained almost exactly the same at 148,100. Renton and Auburn showed slight losses.
Seattle, of course, remains the state’s largest city, followed by Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver and Bellevue, in that order.
And the state’s smallest place, as always, is Krupp, Grant County. Its population, unchanged from 2019, remains at 51.