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#dayton260k | a framework for municipal growth 

Around 1960, Dayton hit its peak population of 262,332. It was then the 49th largest city in the United States, and one of the smallest geographically at just 33 square miles. Dayton packed a punch: among the top 50 U.S. cities, only Jersey City and Newark (NJ) were smaller. Because of its small land area, it had a respectable population density that was higher than both Cincinnati and Indianapolis, each of whom covered roughly double the area of Dayton.

Fifty years later, Dayton has both grown and shrunk. In the 2010 Census, it is larger than it was in 1960, at 55 square miles, and smaller, with 120,000 fewer people. It’s now the 181st largest US city, right behind Savannah, Georgia, and a few slots ahead of Columbia, South Carolina. Only our metropolitan area, basically Montgomery and Greene counties combined, keeps us in the ranks of major US population centers, and we’re still only the 63rd largest MSA. If you expand outward to capture Springfield and Greenville, we crack the top 50 at the 43rd largest combined statistical area (CSA) in the U.S.

The thinning of our population has been the trend, and it’s worrisome, but there’s a caveat. A recent paper by Jason Hackworth and Maxwell Hartt of the University of Toronto introduced a methodology for determining how much population loss is due to changes in household size (the number of people living in a given household) versus how much might be due to outmigration (moving out of the city, either to other towns in the metro, or out of the region). A quick calculation using Census data shows that Dayton’s population loss, while substantial, was less due to outmigration than to changes in household size. Comparisons with other cities in the Midwest suggests that we have actually been far better at retaining the population that we have: evidence that Dayton does inspire and that living here turns many transplants into Dayton boosters.

So what difference does population make? Seen from the lens of our physical assets (our water and sewer systems, our roads and sidewalks, our neighborhoods and downtown), population growth is necessary to offset the trend of shrinking households. We are a city built for over 250,000 people, and could easily accommodate twice that number within the city limits. The sustainability of our city’s infrastructure depends on growth.

Seen from an economic development and human capital perspective, more people bring more new ideas, more new businesses, more new experiences and perspectives, and more new investment in our economy and our neighborhoods. The adage that you never know which child might someday find a cure for cancer holds here: what Dayton resident will found the next NCR or Delphi? More population doesn’t mean fewer opportunities for those of us who live here now. It multiplies the opportunities, the jobs, the social networks, and the investment in our city, and increases the odds that the next big Dayton company will get off the ground.

This is why I started the #dayton260k movement. Think of it as a framework for promoting the city and for thinking about economic development through a simple metric: population. There will be many routes to a larger population. We need new employers to come here and existing employers to expand. The base will continue to be a significant driver of growth. We need to continue to beautify our city and invest in our assets like Metroparks and the river system. We must above all build more housing. But let’s establish a common goal and vision for this growth.



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