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Will Houston soon make Chicago the fourth city?
July 23, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Is Chicago in decline? I read in the Economist today that Houston is expected to overtake Chicago as the third most populous city in the U.S. What gives? What are we going to call ourselves now? The fourth city? But seriously, do things such as this belie a lack of dynamism? If so, what's the cause?

— Sdejong, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

Where do I start? No, Houston isn't about to pass Chicago in population the fricking Brits relied on some fricking Texan who got Chicago mixed up with Philadelphia easy mistake, right? and nobody caught it, the losers. I'll return to that. The more important thing is, we need to get over this big = good fixation. You don't want the town emptying out, as Chicago was for many years; modest growth, preferably of the infill variety, is good. But, unlike Houston, we're past the boomtown days. That doesn't belie a lack of dynamism; we're just in a different (and in my opinion, better) phase. As I'll explain, whatever your opinion of Chicago vs. Houston now, in 20 years you're likely to be happier living here.

First let's deal with the Economist. No doubt you saw the article "Lone Star rising" in the July 9, 2009 issue, which featured a special report on Texas. Citing various indicators of the state's economic vitality, the article says, "Next year’s national census is expected to show that flourishing Houston has replaced struggling Chicago as America’s third city."

One thinks: struggling Chicago? Browsing on the Web, we find a blog posting about the Economist article by a fellow named Tory Gattis, who describes himself as a Houston-based "social systems architect." Gattis says he was interviewed by the Economist and was the source of the statement about Houston passing Chicago. He observes:

[This was] an unfortunate error, as we are expected to pass the Philadelphia metro in 2010, but it could be decades before we pass Chicago as either a city or metro.

He then cites a Wikipedia article with a table of 2007 population estimates for the largest U.S. cities, reproduced with a few amendments below:

Rank City Population
city limits
per sq mi
Metro area population, 2008 Metro growth rate
1 New York, NY 8,274,527 27,147.4 19,006,798 3.7%
2 Los Angeles, CA 3,834,340 7,876.8 12,872,808 4.1%
3 Chicago, IL 2,836,658 12,750.3 9,569,624 5.2%
4 Houston, TX 2,208,180 4,371.7 5,728,143 21.5%
5 Phoenix, AZ 1,522,259 2,782.0 4,281,899 31.7%
6 Philadelphia, PA 1,449,634 11,233.6 5,838,471 2.7%
7 San Antonio, TX 1,328,984 2,808.5 2,031,445 17.8%
8 San Diego, CA 1,266,731 3,771.9 3,001,072 6.7%
9 Dallas, TX 1,240,499 3,469.9 6,300,006 22.1%
10 San Jose, CA 939,899 5,117.9 4,274,531 3.7%

Studying this, we discern the following:

  • The population of metropolitan Houston is indeed closing in on that of metro Philly and may well have passed it by the time of the 2010 census.

  • The city of Houston still has considerably fewer people than Chicago. If both cities continue to increase at their present rate, Houston will overtake Chicago by 2030.

  • The population of metropolitan Houston trails Chicago distantly right now metro Chicago has 3.8 million more people. At the present rate of increase, metro Houston will be larger than Chicago by 2050.

The wild card in the above is "at the present rate of increase." A century ago, Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago predicted that the city, based on the growth rate at the time, would have a population of 13.25 million by 1950. It didn't come close. Will Houston keep growing at the same rate indefinitely? Of course not every city's population flattens out eventually. Will it keep growing long enough to pass Chicago? No idea, but I know this: A lot is going to change in the next 20 years.

I'll get back to that. First a few other observations:

  • In the grand scheme, the population of the central city in a metro area isn't that important. Boston, for example, has a population of only about 600,000, ranking it 23rd among U.S. cities. However, the Boston metro area, at 4.5 million, ranks 10th.

  • One reason the city of Houston is growing faster than the city of Chicago is that it has a lot more land. Houston has aggressively annexed surrounding communities and currently takes in 601 square miles; Chicago has 227 square miles, about as big as it's going to get.

  • Although Chicago isn't the giant among global cities that it was in the 1920s, when it was the 4th largest in the world, it's still a good-sized town. Currently metro Chicago ranks 27th among world cities in population. At the present rate of increase, metro Chicago within a few years will have a population of more than 10 million, the usual threshold for a "megacity." As it stands, metro Chicago is only a little smaller than metro Paris.

  • Size doesn't necessarily correspond with status. Among the world's largest cities we find Tokyo, London, and New York, known for their wealth, and Calcutta, India (16 million); Dacca, Bangladesh (13.1 million), and Lagos, Nigeria (11.4 million), known for their poverty. For what it's worth, in the 2008 ranking of "global cities" by Foreign Policy magazine, Chicago ranked 8th. (New York, London, and Paris were 1-2-3; Los Angeles was 6th.) Neither Houston nor any other Texas city made the top 60.

My aim here isn't to run down Houston (well, not my main aim), but simply to point out that it's in a different stage of development from Chicago. Chicago was a boom town a hundred years ago; Houston is a boom town now. Like a lot of other Sunbelt cities, Houston is currently experiencing double-digit population growth; metropolitan Chicago, like many more established urban areas, is growing at single-digit rates. That's not a problem; it's what you'd expect. The real issue in Chicago and other older urban areas in the century just past was whether the central city would be able to stabilize once the fat years ended. For a long time in Chicago that was in doubt between 1950 and 1990 the city proper lost almost a quarter of its population. After that things leveled off. Although some parts of town continued to decline, others boomed, downtown in particular its population increased almost 40 percent between 1970 and 2000 and is now around 165,000, larger than any other Illinois city except Aurora. So I wouldn't worry too much about Chicago's lack of dynamism.

The more interesting question now is how well Chicago, Houston, and other U.S. cities are preparing for the future, when life is going to be way different due to rising energy costs. This is a vast topic I won't attempt to explore now; I'll just say you're probably going to have an easier time of it in Chicago at least in the city proper. That's because the central city is becoming more densely built up, and thus supports better (if still inadequate) public transit. Chicago's density as of 2000 was about 13,000 per square mile, and many neighborhoods are much higher the Near North Side is approaching 50,000 per square mile. Houston's density in contrast  is about 4,400 per square mile. When gas prices were low that didn't matter much (although traffic congestion in Houston is notoriously bad). But prices have increased sharply and will rise more due to growing worldwide demand once the economy recovers. Largely for that reason, U.S. transit usage in 2008 rose to its highest level in 52 years, while driving declined. Some cities are better equipped to handle this shift than others. However dismal you may think CTA service is, transit in Houston is worse. The city is belatedly attempting to rectify matters by building light-rail lines, but it's so spread out there are limits to what can be done. Suburban Chicago is also thinly populated and faces a similar dilemma. Infill housing construction in the city of Chicago, on the other hand, has become a growth industry city residential building permits accounted for just 7 percent of the metro total in 1990-1995 but 40 percent in 2007. Greater density will make it easier (not easy) to improve Chicago transit, which Lord knows could use it. Houston? Good luck. 

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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