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If anyone reading this is still alive in 2100, they’ll undoubtedly be living in a vastly different world from the world of 2024. While it is all but certain that technological advancements and climate change will have a major impact on human society, the worsening issue of urban depopulation in the United States is rarely considered.
According to a recent University of Illinois Chicago study published in the journal Nature Cities, approximately 15,000 U.S. cities will lose at least some of their population by the end of the century. For the worst-hit, it probably won’t be much of a stretch to describe them as “ghost towns.”
The study authors found that nearly half of U.S. cities are currently depopulating, even though many urban planning policies assume that most cities will continue to grow. By 2100, declining cities such as Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh are projected to lose between 12% and 23% of their current population.
These projections are based on data collected by the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey between 2000 and 2020. To reach their projections, the researchers applied current population trends in around 24,000 cities to five different scenarios of future society based on climate change, demographics, and economics. Around 43% of those cities are currently facing population declines, while 40% are growing, most notably metropolises such as NYC, Chicago, Phoenix, and Houston.
A country of ghost towns?
- Although the study authors did not seek to identify the specific causes for the depopulation trend, place-specific variables such as industrial decline, lower birth rates, differing climate change impacts, and tax levels could all be relevant.
- The study suggests that depopulation will be felt most keenly in the Midwest and the Northeast, while cities in the South and West are more likely to gain population. At least three-quarters of cities in Vermont, West Virginia, Illinois, Mississippi, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Michigan are projected to decline in population.
- Although there is clearly much uncertainty about what the next eight decades will bring, the researchers hope that their findings will help urban planners recognize that they may need to shift their thinking away from growth-based planning. According to urban engineer Sybil Derrible, a senior author of the paper, the depopulation of cities is not necessarily a cause for doom and gloom. “We should see this not as a problem but as an opportunity to rethink the way we do things.”