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Is this really the fastest growing city in America?

Are folks reallly moving to Seattle in droves? Credit: Credit: jystewart/Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, front page headlines in The Seattle Times declared Seattle the fastest growing large city in the U.S. Now, in some people’s minds, this conjures visions of oversized moving vans and U-hauls barreling along local freeways with hordes of people pouring into the city. Crazy, out-of-control growth. 

Calm yourself down.

Whenever I see a claim that something is the largest, fastest, or longest, my skepticism meter shoots upward. Claims like those always depend on whom is doing the math, how the numbers are being calculated and just what the measures are. Indeed, at the same time Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk made his claim — based on U.S. Census data — New York City made the same fastest-growing assertion, drawing on absolute numbers instead of percentages.

The problem with this numbers game is that by customizing the parameters in a particular way, analysts can make almost any claim.

Now Gene Balk is a fine researcher. A while back he debunked analysis by the real estate research firm RealtyTrac, which named that the 148th Avenue corridor in east Bellevue is a new hipster destination. RealtyTrac based its conclusion on the residents’ age, use of transit and percent of renters. Locals just scratched their heads. A simple explanation: there just happen to be a lot of young Microsoft workers living in apartments in that census tract — and skewing the data. A new mecca of hipsterdom? Hardly.

Back to Seattle. For one year, the city rode its 2.8 percent increase in population to the top of the growth charts for the country's 50 largest cities. Actually, the distinction is slight. Most cities with more than a half a million people have grown significantly in recent years; it's a national trend in demographics. In many cases, the increases were about the same order of magnitude. Saying Seattle “leapt” above Boston in size is a bit hyperbolic, considering we're talking about a few thousand more people.

Looking at Census data for a longer period (between 2010 and 2013) reveals that a number of large cities grew at a faster rate than Seattle. Seattle’s seven percent increase was outpaced by Denver and Charlotte. Austin grew by an astonishing 12 percent in that time. Seattle’s growth rate has been greater than many other large cities, but it's not particularly remarkable.

No other national publications proclaimed Seattle the winner of the urban growth sweepstakes. In fact, if you look at cities below 500,000 in population, many have experienced bigger increases. Using the same Census Bureau data, Texas newspapers crowed that seven of that state's cities placed among the fastest growing in the nation.

What’s more, in cities whose populations top one million, it's really hard to actually affect the growth meter because the base population is so large. An influx of many thousands of people, which most cities larger than Seattle have recently absorbed, barely registers. And in many cases, the growth is even more location-specific than a city as a whole. For example, population increases in Chicago and Philadelphia have been due almost entirely to the renaissance of and growth in their respective downtowns.

Clearly Seattle’s population is growing. But what else would you expect for a city that repeatedly finds itself on lists such as “Best Places to Live, “Best Places for Young Professionals” and “Best Places to Invest?” This region existed in peaceful obscurity a few decades ago. But not anymore. The word is out. And people are moving here.

I don’t mean to minimize the effects of growth, which is palpable. Look at the dozens of cranes silently rotating on their masts, erecting big apartment blocks. As the Times article points out, the Census says Seattle grew by 18,000 people during one year. Based on our average household size, that translates to a demand for roughly 8,000 housing units. The Downtown Seattle Association reports that more than 5,000 units are going up in the city center in response to this demand.

So where are the other 3,000 going? Into the neighborhoods, of course. Hundreds of new units are being built on Capitol Hill, a place that is particularly appealing to younger newcomers. Other neighborhoods from Ballard to West Seattle are seeing the influx as well. In the meantime, while construction proceeds, there is a shortfall in supply. Economics 101 holds that if demand for a good is greater than the supply, the price goes up. Hello, rent increases.

Higher rents have been happening for some time now, and they have pushed some people out of the city. The inner ring of cities just outside Seattle has seen a dramatic demographic shift; more lower and moderate income residents, more racial diversity and many more immigrants from all over the world. The central city is simply too expensive for some people now. The whitebread suburbs of two decades ago are now bastions of diversity, with a multitude of cultures, languages and dress.

Seattle is not alone in this? Not at all. European cities have been seeing the shift for at least 20 years. Priced out of downtown San Francisco, the city’s middle class has gravitated to the East Bay and surrounding counties. New Yorkers priced out of Manhattan first colonized Hoboken, then Brooklyn, then other more obscure, affordable districts. This is the way of cities. They constantly change. Populations shift. Neighborhoods and towns morph accordingly.

Certainly, Seattle has been witnessing robust growth. For a multitude of reasons, this city is seen as highly desirable. But fastest growing? Maybe by some measures, for short periods.

To put things in perspective, it took Seattle 60 years to grow from 500,000 residents to the 650,000 it has today. That’s an increase, with a few ups and downs along the way, of 30 percent. During that 60-years, Phoenix grew from 100,000 to 1.5 million.

Now that’s growth for ya.   

But rates of growth are rather silly to brag about. Its far more important to guide where growth occurs and how it occurs. And how we as a community can capture the rising collective wealth and make sure that many benefit, not just a few.

Crosscut's Community Idea Lab coverage is made possible by the generous support of Social Venture Partner’s Fast Pitch.

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