Philadelphia’s Population Problem

Philadelphia continues to lose people – although not at quite the clip it once did. What can the city do about it? Plan for growth

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Last week, the Census Bureau released its population estimates for the country’s top 25 cities. Philadelphia is still holding on to its spot as the 6th most populous city — but one has to wonder for how long. Out of the 25 largest cities, Philadelphia is one of only four cities — along with Detroit, Memphis and Baltimore — that has lost population since the 2000 census. In the past eight years, Philadelphia has lost more than 70,000 people, or roughly 4 percent of its population — a faster rate of population loss than any other American city.
View downtown from the Art Museum.

There are myriad excuses for why Philadelphia continues to lose people in this post-racial golden era for urbanity. You could say it’s an old city and all the growth in cities these days is in the sprawling Southwest. Tell that to New York City, which gained 53,000 people in one year. Or Boston, which has added 20,000 people in the past eight years.

You could complain that Philadelphia just happens to be in Pennsylvania which as a state has one of the highest proportions of elderly people, who happen to dying off. But what about the thousands of young people that graduate every year from the 92 colleges in the Philadelphia area?

A high crime rate, a beleaguered education system and unceasing fiscal crises provide other excuses for why so many people have left Philadelphia. To counter these problems, however, the city has provided little incentive for people to stay or move here.

While cities lose residents at roughly the same rates, their changes in population are largely related to their ability to attract new residents. Philadelphia has yet develop a comprehensive plan to keep its population levels stable; more astonishingly, it has few plans for growth. As the mayor has wisely created holistic offices, such as the Office of Sustainability, he needs to develop an office or affiliated non-profit focused on the city’s strategic growth.

This city was built for 2 million people, and it can replenish its population to that number if it believes that population growth is the top priority for the city. And it should be: when Philadelphia has more people, it will have the tax base it needs to fix its schools and keep its libraries open; when Philadelphia grows its population, our vacant lots and abandoned buildings won’t be breeding grounds for crime; as a larger city, Philadelphia’s infrastructure, from transit to trash, will run more efficiently at a greater scale.

An organization dedicated to the city’s intentional growth must encourage a diverse new population with as diverse set of tools. First and foremost, Philadelphia must retain many more of the students that reside here for four years — and then leave. The percentage of Philadelphians with college degrees is shockingly only 21 percent. The city has done a miserable job of retaining the more than 100,000 students living in the city. Most universities offer programs that postpone interest accrual on loans while students are enrolled in school; the city should develop a program so that students can postpone interest accrual if they live in Philadelphia for at least three years. A program like this not only builds these young people’s wealth, but will allow them to build larger bonds with the city, will make Philadelphia schools more attractive to students, and encourage them to stay here after those three post-graduate years.

The business community has been focused on attracting large corporations to move headquarters here — an unlikely scenario as Philadelphia is sandwiched between D.C. and New York. Instead, small businesses must be encouraged to grow by hiring the best talent possible. Small grants for relocation assistance will allow local Philadelphia companies to gather new talent here and compete with larger corporations in larger cities.

The city must next capitalize on its strong immigrant communities as many cities depend upon immigrants to boost their population numbers. Our local philanthropic community and the Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant affairs is deeply interested in ways of engaging new immigrants and they should work together to provide these immigrants with the services they need — language and microfinance programs — so that they can encourage family members and friends to help build their community.

There are other exciting ways to encourage growth, but the most essential one is to coordinate all the city’s agencies and top partners to jointly gear their activities toward attracting more people. Rather than rely upon the tired methods of attracting growth, such as tax abatements or corporate incentives, offices as disparate as Fairmount Park and the Transportation Department need to re-examine how their work can create a better, more attractive quality of life in Philadelphia. By redirecting their energies toward building a quality of life that will attract more people to live here, these government entities will be thinking not just of short-term goals, but of the future. That kind of forward thinking is the only way this city will regain the density and prosperity of its past.

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

Tags: philadelphiagovernance

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