Size of densely developed area grows locally, Census data show

The Washington region's urban population grew faster than any other major metropolitan area in the Northeast, Census data released Monday show.

Over the last decade, the number of people living in urban areas in the region increased by 16.6 percent to nearly 4.6 million, far outpacing other Northeast urban centers with populations of more than 600,000 people.

Slower urban growth in Northeast (Data for populations larger than 600,000)
Rank/Urban areaPopulation10-yr growth
1. Washington4,586,77016.6%
2. Allentown, Pa.664,65115.3%
3. Hartford, Conn.924,8598.6%
4. Springfield, Mass.621,3008.3%
5. Baltimore2,203,6636.1%
6. Philadelphia5,441,5675.7%
7. Bridgeport, Conn.923,3113.9%
8. Rochester, N.Y.720,5723.8%
9. Boston4,181,0193.7%
10. Virginia Beach1,439,6663.2%
11. New York City18,351,2953.1%
12. Providence, R.I.1,190,9561.4%
13. Pittsburgh1,733,853-1.1%
14. Buffalo935,906-4.2%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Washington growth is centered in areas that are urban, defined by the Census Bureau as "densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas," meaning those who live in the region's agricultural areas are not counted toward the total urban population.

Brookings Institution Demographer William Frey said the growth has created urban-like suburbs, a trend that will continue through the next decade as planners try to fit more people into already developed areas.

"There's a clustering going on there," Frey said of the outer suburbs. "More people are living in what we'd think of as suburbs but they're defined as urban areas."

Washington's draw for younger people and strong jobs market also contributed to a growth in the actual land area considered urban. The region's urban land area increased by 14.2 percent, a gain of 164 square miles. The growth is 12th-highest in the country, according to Brookings.

The amount of urban land per county drops farther out from the District. More than 80 percent of Fairfax County's land is urban, with about 99 percent of the county population living within that area. In Montgomery County, 97 percent of the county lives in an urban area. Because of the county's agricultural preserve, just 55 percent of the land is urban.

Washington's growth is part of a national population shift toward the South and West.

"It's kind of a bridge to the Sun Belt," Frey said of the Washington region.

Nationally, Charlotte, N.C., led the way, increasing by more than 63 percent since 2000. Austin, Texas, and Las Vegas rounded out the top three, increasing by 51 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Washington's growth ranks 18th nationally among urban areas home to more than 1 million people.

Frey said the meager growth in the Northeast could have been worse as the decade kicked off with a high-paced exodus toward warmer climates and job growth driven by the real estate boom. The economy slowing in the latter part of the decade -- capped by the 2009 recession -- halted growth in the South and West.

"This is a continued movement but one that could have been even more dramatic if it had continue over the last part of the decade," he said.