Huntsville continued to surge ahead as Alabama’s three other largest cities lost population to surrounding suburbs. However, the pace of decline slowed in Birmingham and Montgomery, as it did in many cities nationwide that were hit hard by pandemic-driven change.
That’s from the latest estimates produced by U.S. Census Bureau. The estimates cover the period between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, a period during which the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continued to echo.
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many urban centers have seen an erosion in population, both from heightened death rates and outward migration due to changes in work and commuting patterns. In 2022, some central cities began to bounce back, particularly in the South. Nashville and Atlanta returned to population growth.
Meanwhile, other Southeastern cities barely slowed during the pandemic and have since accelerated. Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Florida, landed in the Top 10 for growth in 2022, along with Florida and Texas cities.
Alabama’s Four Large Cities
As the 2020 Census approached, the state’s four largest cities had converged at about 200,000 residents each. As the cities have changed ranks, population trends have become increasingly closely watched. (Coverage by Al.com).
Long the state’s largest city, Birmingham’s population peaked in 1960 at 340,000. After 1960, almost all Birmingham-area residential growth occurred in surrounding suburbs rather than the city. A downtown urban residential renaissance in recent years hasn’t been enough to offset the shift to newer housing farther from the city center. According to the estimates, Birmingham is now the third largest city, behind Huntsville and Montgomery. However, Birmingham’s urban core remains larger, and its metro area is more than twice as large as Huntsville.
Meanwhile, Huntsville’s population growth has been spurred by both private and public defense and technology investment, as well as by the successful recruitment of manufacturers like Mazda-Toyota and Polaris. And unlike Birmingham, Huntsville has been able to add population because it strategically annexed land where residential and job growth is taking place. Instead of being surrounded by a ring of suburbs, Huntsville now encircles its largest suburb, Madison.
Mobile has seen steady population loss but is pursuing an annexation campaign to boost its population above Birmingham and Montgomery.
Metropolitan Statistical Areas
When looking at groupings of urban counties known as metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the state’s largest MSA, Birmingham-Hoover, saw a population decline according to the estimates. Data released earlier showed that growth in Shelby and St. Clair County didn’t offset the larger out-migration from Jefferson County and the elevated rate of death rate experienced in Jefferson County. In the new 2022 estimates, most of the inner ring of Birmingham suburbs also showed a population decline, with the growth concentrated farther from the city center. Mobile, Gadsden, and Columbus, GA-AL MSAs also saw declines. The rest of the state’s MSAs posted population gains.
A cluster of north Alabama MSAs — Huntsville (Limestone and Madison County), Decatur (Morgan County), and the Shoals (Colbert and Lauderdale Counties) — saw the most growth. In percentage terms, Baldwin County MSA grew the fastest.
Growth in Smaller Cities
Most of the population growth occurred outside of the big four cities. Tuscaloosa and Auburn-Opelika continued to see population increases. Tuscaloosa has seen Alabama’s most significant bump in its total population since the 2020 Census. Part of the rise in the numbers was due to what amounted to a recount. Tuscaloosa successfully argued that the 2020 Census undercounted the city’s population since most students had left for home during those early days of the pandemic. After considering new data, the Census Bureau now counts Tuscaloosa’s population at over 110,000, more than 10,000 residents higher than the 2020 estimates base.
Huntsville neighbors Madison and Athens were among the big gainers, as were more distant neighbors in its orbit like Cullman, Florence, and Muscle Shoals.
Baldwin County’s growth is widespread to the south, with several cities — Foley, Daphne, Fairhope, Gulf Shores, and Loxley — among the top 20 for growth in Alabama cities.
The most recent estimates showed close-in Birmingham suburbs Vestavia Hills, Homewood, Mountain Brook, and even Hoover as declining in population. The high cost of houses and short supply in the already-developed suburbs has likely affected the trajectory of population levels in those communities. Meanwhile, newer suburbs farther afield, like Helena, Chelsea, and Calera, continue to see growth.
Montgomery, which was long the only sizeable city in Montgomery County, is seeing population growth in its relatively new neighbor, Pike Road, which has added more than 1,000 new residents since 2020. Prattville is seeing similar growth levels.
The population is growing modestly in Wiregrass communities, the biggest gainer being Enterprise which has added about 1,000 residents since 2020.
Cities surrounding Anniston and Gadsden have continued to see very modest population changes.
Across Alabama, about 55% of cities lost population in the most recent year. Wide swaths of rural Alabama, particularly in the west and central part of the state, are experiencing population decline. Only 50 cities statewide out of 460 added 100 people or more between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, according to the estimates.