If recent population growth trends hold steady (see table), the fast growing Washington-Baltimore Combined Statistical Area (CSA), is on track to become the US’s third most populous, passing the Chicago area CSA in 2018.
If this comes to pass, as seems likely, it would be noteworthy and reflective of the shift in relative fortunes of the two regions.
Chicago suffers from two ‘curses’, its location in the midwest where most major cities are struggling to grow, and the overall slow growth of large established cities (e.g. New York is also growing slowly – about half as fast as Washington). This could have impacts on Chicago’s psyche: the area has long been the second or third most populous in the country. It is incumbent upon the region’s leaders to take a hard look at what’s working and what isn’t and to explore growth strategies that are inclusive and provide broad-based opportunities far from the shining lights of Chicago’s downtown loop.
On the other hand, the Washington region has a unique opportunity to capitalize on this growth by forging regional strategies that can help sustain it. The CSA continues to diversify and is strong in many attributes that are key to many knowledge economy sectors (e.g. biotech, high-value added professional services, etc.) but stronger links are needed within the two metropolitan areas (Washington and Baltimore) as well as between them to ensure that growth strategies are harmonized.
Things to note
While this development would be significant here are three important things to note:
- CSAs are not MSAs. While the DC/Baltimore CSA will likely pass the Chicago CSA, when we change the unit of measurement to metropolitan statistical area (MSA), the picture changes. Chicago’s MSA – the country’s third most populous – is 9.6 million, well above its nearest “competitors” Dallas (7.1 million), Houston (6.6 million), and Washington (6.1 million). (See this helpful guide to MSA and CSA definitions).
- The distinction is as follows: the components of a CSA are socially, economically, and physically interlinked but less so than the components of an MSA.
- Take the Bay Area for example. San Francisco and San Jose (Silicon Valley) are two distinct MSAs whose cores are about 50 miles apart. Together, however, they form a joint CSA because they have significant ties. The same is true for the Washington-Baltimore CSA (whose cores are about 40 miles apart). Chicago, on the other hand, is already a sprawling MSA and so jumping to its CSA adds little population (only about 400,000).
- Comparing these CSAs makes sense. Geographically, Chicago’s MSA is almost twice as sprawling as Washington’s (10,856 sq mi vs. 5,564 sq mi) and even larger than the combined Washington-Baltimore CSA (about 8,200 sq mi). While Baltimore and DC are two distinct cities, there are significant commercial and social ties between the two (e.g. overlapping labor market, significant inter-MSA economic activity, shared airport and transportation networks, etc.).
- Trends may not continue (but likely will). These estimates are made assuming the yearly rate of growth experienced from 2010 to 2015 will continue over the next few years. There is no particular reason (that I’m aware of) that this trend will change in significantly. For Chicago, this is concerning.
- Both Chicago and Washington are still far smaller NYC and LA. This battle for third place is being fought far below the CSA populations for New York and Los Angeles (the first and second most populous CSAs, respectively). In 2018, Washington’s and Chicago’s CSAs will each have only about 41% the population of New York’s CSA (24.1 million) and 52% of LA’s (19.2 million). Washington is growing faster than both (especially NYC) but at this pace, it will be many many years before it comes close to catching up.