2020 census: Phoenix grows more than any other major city; Buckeye, Goodyear among fastest growing

Phoenix grew at a faster rate than any other major city in the last decade, officially surpassing Philadelphia as the nation’s fifth largest city, new data from the 2020 census show. 

Buckeye and Goodyear are both among the 10 fastest-growing cities, with populations of at least 50,000, in the nation, the data show. Buckeye grew faster than any other city in the nation, with population growing nearly 80% in the last decade to reach more than 91,000.

Phoenix grew by more than 160,000 people from 2010 to 2020, an increase of 11.2%.

The data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau provides the first local demographic counts from the 2020 census. These show how population has changed down to the neighborhood level and within demographic groups over the last decade. 

The data release is intended to help draw congressional, state legislative and local districts, but also gives insight into total population, voting age population, population breakdowns by race and ethnicity, the number of housing units and whether they are vacant or occupied and the population in “group quarters” such as prisons or college dormitories. 

 The counts in this data go all the way down to the block level, the smallest level of census geography that the bureau uses as the building blocks for counts for larger geographies such as towns, cities, counties or American Indian reservations. 

The 2020 census was different

The decennial census, which is an attempt to count everyone living in the United States as of April 1 of the census year, has traditionally come with changes in process and been subject to unexpected events. However, the 2020 census faced unique challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic and increased politicization around the census.  

Even as 2020 marked the first time Americans could complete the census questionnaire online, the bureau suspended on-the-ground operations in March 2020 and did not resume until May. Pandemic-related delays pushed back the bureau’s timeline, but the Trump administration sought to cut the count short before the bureau’s revised deadline. After a lawsuit by civil rights groups extended the count by a few weeks, the count concluded in mid-October. 

The pandemic and changing timeline made efforts by grassroots groups to encourage participation in the census challenging, particularly in communities of color that have been undercounted in past censuses. The Trump administration’s failed attempt to first add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and later to systematically remove undocumented immigrants from census counts were obstacles to getting a complete count in some communities

A survey taken by the Pew Research Center in early 2020 found that a majority of those who took the survey incorrectly believed that the 2020 census would ask questions about citizenship. 

While the Census Bureau is required by law to keep individual responses private, for data from the 2020 census, the bureau is using a new technique called differential privacy to protect these responses. This method allows the bureau to reveal more details about how it adds noise to different tabulations to protect privacy, but has led some data users to raise concerns about the accuracy of the counts. 

The 2020 census also made changes to the questions that were asked and to how it interpreted the data it collected. For the first time, respondents were able to specify same-sex spouses and partners when answering questions about the relationship between household members. The 2020 questionnaire added write-in boxes for people to further describe their race and updates to racial categories and question instructions. The bureau will also capture more detailed information about race and Hispanic origin.

However, the data released for redistricting will only reflect information about race and Hispanic origin rolled up into a small number of categories. The bureau will release more detailed data on race and ethnicity, as well as the relationship between members of a household, more specific age breakdowns and numbers about homeownership in future releases. The bureau has not yet released a timeline for future data releases.

A changing workforce and a return to downtown

“The growth that this census data demonstrates comes as no surprise. We’ve long known that Phoenix is a top destination to live and work,” said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego.

But some dimensions of that growth, like a resurgence of the downtown, were surprising to Phoenix Community and Economic Development Director Christine Mackay.

“If you would have asked me a decade ago if people were going to live in downtown Phoenix, I would have said that’s never going to happen,” Mackay said.

After the 1970s, downtown Phoenix saw its population leave for the freeways and malls of the suburbs. Mackay explained. The factors bringing them back to the downtown, and to Phoenix are different than what drew people to Arizona in past decades.

“People are coming here now not because of resorts, golf courses and retirement, but to find high tech jobs and a great quality of life,” Mackay said.

Moreover, while workers have traditionally moved to find jobs, in the last decade, Mackay has seen a shift to workers with desirable skills choosing where they want to live, and the jobs following.

More jobs in the technology sector are reversing a brain drain from Arizona’s universities and are creating a more diverse culture, attracting workers from other large metropolitan areas as well as preventing the loss of Arizonans with technical skills to places like Silicon Valley, Mackay said. This growth, as well as the changing tastes of these workers, means reevaluating the city’s transportation infrastructure to include more mass transit.

“We’re Arizona. We’re always going to be married to our car, that’s who we are,” Mackay said. “As people are coming in from more urban cities, they’re much more used to a transit system.”

Growth beyond the census numbers

Responding to the news that his city grew faster than any other in the U.S. with a population of 50,000 or more, Buckeye Mayor Eric Orsborn said: “There are so many exciting things happening in Buckeye. Our efforts to focus on providing a variety of housing options, attracting quality employers in energy, advanced manufacturing, logistics and distribution are paying off.”

While the census numbers show that Buckeye has grown to more than 91,000 residents, Buckeye Economic Development Director and Deputy City Manager David Roderique suspects the population is closer to 100,000 people.

“We as a community are growing so quickly, it’s hard to keep up with the numbers,” Roderique said. Roderique said the city tracks residential building permits and uses average household size to get their own population estimates. Permits have been growing at a steady pace since April 1, 2020, the base date for the 2020 census, so the numbers released Thursday won’t reflect recent population growth, Roderique said.

Population counts are important for attracting new businesses, retailers and services like schools and health care providers, Roderique said. Many large businesses have a threshold of population that a community will have to meet before they’ll set up shop. The city also watches the data for planning infrastructure like roads and water and sewer lines and will use the census data to draw new city council districts.

Roderique said he expects Buckeye to continue to grow as other Valley communities start reaching the limits of available land. “Buckeye is the one with all the land,” Roderique said. “We expect to remain a very high-growth community for a long time.”

In Arizona, census counts are key to planning, and revenue

One way to measure the last decade’s growth is in new infrastructure, Goodyear City Manager Julie Karins said. Since 2010 the city has built two new fire stations, with a third in the works as well as a new police station and a surface water treatment plant. These serve a population that has grown by more than 30,000 (46%) from 2010 to 2020.

Supporting a growing population takes intentional planning.

“For a community to embrace the growth and maintain a high quality of life for existing residents is something that we really focus on,” Karins said. While state law requires larger towns and cities to develop a general plan that addresses things like land use, water resources, transportation and safety, Goodyear also has more specific long-term planning processes.

For the first time, Karins said, the city is developing a human services master plan. Data like the census counts will help inform what things like senior meal services, transit, and programming for preschool-age children as well as teenagers will look like in Goodyear.

“I don’t think we can assume that the Goodyear of the year 2000 is the same as 2020,” Karins said. “We don’t want to be reactive.”

opulation counts are also key to revenue for Arizona cities like Goodyear. The state’s shared sales tax is allocated based on population and getting an accurate count helps make sure tax dollars are returned to communities.

According to Karins, the ability to complete the census online helped the community achieve a 70% self-response rate. Self-response provides the highest quality census data. When a household doesn’t complete the census for themselves, the bureau will ask someone like a landlord or neighbor to fill in the gaps. In the absence of a proxy, the bureau uses statistical methods to make an educated guess about a household.  

“I do believe we had a good solid count,” Karins said.

Growth, but more sustainably 

When the town of Queen Creek incorporated in 1989, its population was about 2,700. Three decades later, its population is nearly 60,000.

In the last decade, the town’s population more than doubled — a faster rate of growth than any other incorporated place in the state — faster even than Buckeye and Goodyear, which were among the fastest-growing larger cities in the nation.

“It’s just been profound,” Town Manager John Kross said. 

Kross said the town has grown annually by 6-9% over the last decade, a rate that’s more sustainable than in the early 2000s. 

“We were overheating,” Kross said. “That was not manageable. It was very, very challenging.” 

In those days, the town was growing faster than it could attract investment, which meant the town didn’t have the revenue to update infrastructure like roads to match its growth, Kross said.

The town looks closely at data collected by the Census Bureau about population growth, median income and median age to help plan in a way that aligns investment and revenue with a growing population. 

“The private sector looks at those characteristics extremely closely too,” Kross said. “Those will be keys for them that perhaps trigger new investment in the community.”

Looking at population data by age also helps plan for things like parks and recreational programming. Kross said that Mansel Carter Oasis Park ended up having twice the area allocated for things like a splash pad and play equipment that would appeal to younger park visitors when the town realized that young residents made up a substantial portion of the population. Children under the age of 18 make up nearly a third of Queen Creek’s population, the newly-released census data show. 

Declining population, but hope for the future 

While Phoenix and its suburbs have continued to see growth, the same isn’t true for places elsewhere in the state. Growing up in the area, Douglas Mayor Donald Huish remembers when neighboring Agua Prieta, across the Mexican border, and Douglas had similar populations.

While the Mexican city’s population has grown, Douglas has shrunken to around 16,500 census data show, losing more than 800 residents (about 5%) since 2010, one of the larger population losses for incorporated places in the state. 

Huish attributes the decline to a loss of job opportunities in the area. Most residents work for some branch of government, and even those jobs, such as at a state prison, tend to pay less than industries in past decades. When there are opportunities, even with the support of a local community college, it can be difficult to find workers with the right skills, Huish said. 

The city also has lost population as some people have moved over the border to Mexico, where the cost of living is lower, Huish said. 

Data showing a declining population, as well as the income of residents can make it difficult to attract investment. Recently, a supermarket in the city announced it would be closing, citing the declining population as one reason it would be leaving the community. But Huish said he suspects the loss of customers from Mexico due to the border closure that prohibits travel of Mexicans into the U.S.

“It affects the whole region,” Huish said “That’s why we’ve been preaching hard that we need to get this border open.”

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