NC in Focus: Shifting from small towns to larger cities

When I moved into my first office at UNC, I inherited a framed, infographic poster published by the News & Observer after the release of the 2000 Census data. It’s a great overview of the significant growth and change that occurred in North Carolina between 1990 and 2000, and highlights many trends that continued in the decade that followed.

One of these shifts was the increasing concentration of population in mid-size towns and larger cities. Prior to 2000, the majority of North Carolina’s population was living in unincorporated places. The 2000 Census marked the first time in state history that the majority of the population was living in an incorporated municipality (50.3%).

News and Observer Rural to Urban Shift

In 1980, less than 31% of North Carolina’s population lived in mid-size towns or larger cities: 14.5% lived in cities with 75,000 residents or more and 16% lived in towns with populations between 10,000 and 74,999 residents. This was equivalent to just over half of the proportion of residents living outside of municipalities (56.9%).

Between 1980 and 2010, the share of individuals living in larger cities nearly doubled, rising to 28%. This reflects continued growth in the state’s largest cities—including Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem—as well as population growth that pushed previously mid-size cities into the larger city category. Between 2000 and 2010, three cities grew enough to pass the 75,000 person threshold: Asheville, Concord, and Greenville.

NC population shifting to larger cities

Over this same time period, the population proportion living in mid-size towns and cities (10,000 to 74,999) increased slightly, reaching 17.2% in 2010.

By 2010, the same proportion (45%) of North Carolina’s population lived in mid-size or larger towns and cities as lived in unincorporated areas.

Nationally, more than half of U.S. residents (54%) live in places of 10,000 people or more, with nearly one-third residing in larger cities. Compared to the nation, North Carolina has a much higher proportion of individuals living outside of incorporated municipalities (45% vs. 37% in 2010).

US population more concentrated in mid-size and larger cities

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About Rebecca Tippett

Rebecca Tippett is Director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill's Carolina Population Center.
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