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Talton: With Census saying Phoenix is 5th-largest U.S. city, it's time to take another look at growth

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Rogue Columnist

Talton: With Census saying Phoenix is 5th-largest U.S. city, it's time to take another look at growth

So Phoenix is officially the nation's fifth most populous city, surpassing Philadelphia in the 2020 Census. Much information and analysis awaits unpacking.

Phoenix grew 11.2% over the decade, the biggest increase of the 10 largest cities. Yet this was the second-slowest percentage growth rate in the city's history; only the 9.4% from 2000 to 2010, hobbled by the housing bust, was slower. By contrast, the city grew by more than 34% in the 1990s.

The contest with the City of Brotherly Love was close. Phoenix clocked in with 1,608,139 only 4,342 more than Philly. The latter also continued to reverse its population loss, growing at 5.1 percent. Philadelphia benefited from the "back to the city" movement, where talented millennials and empty nest boomers chose vibrant, high-quality cities and corporate headquarters followed.

In Phoenix, the expected growthgasm was don't-wake-the-children muted. It's hard to know why, except Phoenix has been expecting the official word for years. I remember when, as an Arizona Republic columnist, I traveled with a Phoenix delegation in the mid-2000s to Philly when we had temporarily become No. 5. The Philadelphians were most gracious, the cheese steaks divine.

In fact, this is a moment for introspection, for Phoenix is not No. 5 in the areas that matter.

It's not one of the Superstar Cities that capture jobs at the "frontier of innovation." Those are Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and San Diego. Phoenix is not one of the most educated cities, either. Among big city peers, Seattle is fifth. Metro Phoenix lags at 80th on the list. Chicago is fifth with the best parks; Phoenix ranks No. 82. Seattle is No. 5 in gross domestic product per capita; Phoenix is No. 148.

Nor is Phoenix's position secure, its ascent guaranteed. A century ago, Cleveland was the fifth most populous American city.

Houston seems unlikely to be surpassed, although it may leap over Chicago to become No. 3. Philadelphia is nipping at Phoenix's heels, along with San Antonio, San Diego, and Dallas. Climate change is not going to be easy on many of these southern/southwestern cities, but Phoenix faces the most uncertainty.

Philadelphia is a great "true city." At 134 square miles, it's conveniently dense compared with Phoenix's sprawly 518 square miles with in-city suburbs such as Desert Ridge. Philly is graced with dozens of real universities and colleges, including Ivy League Penn, Temple, Drexel, and Thomas Jefferson. Phoenix has only two campuses of ASU.

Philly enjoys world-class cultural institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra (a Big Five), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (one of the world's largest), the Curtis Institute of Music, and many others. Phoenix's cultural institutions hang on by the skin of their teeth, the city lacking the civic stewards that benefit those such as Philly.

Philadelphia has numerous authentic neighborhoods with great entertainment and food. No car is needed. Philadelphia is on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, and in the city has abundant rail transit (subways, elevated trains, and commuter trains). Phoenix is the largest city in North America without intercity passenger trains. And while WBIYB light rail is a success, it's far from meeting the city's needs.

My point is not to energize those who say, "Talton hates Phoenix/Arizona" (Pro tip, loving the source of your beat or study can be a liability to a journalist, biographer, or historian). It's to add perspective. Adding people is not enough. Indeed, people bring carrying costs — Arizona-style growth doesn't pay for itself.

Oh, for a more mature attitude to measuring and celebrating growth. I'd start with measuring the planting and preservation of shade trees.

Me? I'd give anything to return to my garden city, my flawed Eden, of the 1960s or before.

This piece was first published on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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