A New Kind of Population Growth

The 2020 census is a big deal for Central New York. Not only did the City of Syracuse post its first decade of population growth since 1950, but—more importantly—the City’s rate of growth exceeded the rest of the county’s. Between 2010 and 2020, Syracuse’s population grew by 2.38% while the towns’ collective population grew by just 1.88%.

To understand just how crazy this is, we need to back up to 1850: the first census taken after Syracuse became a city. From this point until 1930, Onondaga County grew from a population of 85,890 to 291,606—a 240% increase. Over the same period, Syracuse grew by 840% while the towns that make up the rest of the County grew by just 29%. Syracuse accounted for 91% of the County’s overall population growth during this time.

This was a period of rapid urbanization. Syracuse was a major city at the front of economic, technological, and social change, and people flocked to the city—both from the surrounding countryside, from elsewhere in the United States, and from overseas—to get a better life.

But what these raw numbers don’t show is how Syracuse grew. New housing for all these new people was often built at the edge of town, and the city would annex it in order to provide municipal services. New transportation technologies like electric streetcars facilitated day trips between the growing city and existing villages like Geddes (now known as Tipperary Hill), and the two municipalities agreed to join. Developers built brand new communities like Eastwood—designed from the beginning to function as a suburb of Syracuse—and the City eventually annexed them too.

So this period of rapid urbanization was also a period of suburbanization. Syracuse grew by growing outward—as cities like Houston still do today—and the towns appeared not to grow much at all because the City’s boundaries ate into theirs in order to encompass all of these new people.

All that changed after the 1930 census. The 1920s saw a huge increase in car ownership that made it easier for people to move far beyond the City’s municipal boundaries, and new laws made it harder for Syracuse to annex land from surrounding towns. Syracuse annexed Eastwood, Meadowbrook, and parts of Salt Springs, Strathmore, and Winkworth between 1920 and 1930—a huge increase in both land area and population—but it was the last time the City was able to annex any significant amount of land.

After 1930, the County’s population continued to grow, but that growth occurred in the towns. Between 1930 and 2010 they grew by 291% while the County’s overall population increased by just 60%, and the City lost 31% of its population.

This was a big change with huge implications for life in Onondaga County, but the demographic trends after 1930 weren’t so different from those before: the County as a whole continued to grow both in population and in extent of urbanized land as prosperity attracted new people, and new transportation technology made it possible for people to live further and further away from each other. The only difference is that Syracuse’s city line used to expand to capture all that sprawl, but since 1930 municipal boundaries have remained essentially static.

So the 2020 census is a big deal because it might signal that Onondaga County has moved into a new phase of population growth. For the first time since Syracuse stopped growing in land area, its rate of population increase outpaced the County as a whole. The city’s population rose by 2.38% while the County gained just 2.03% and the towns only added 1.88%. For the second time since 1850, the lines on the graph on the right have intersected, and Syracuse is again adding people more quickly than the towns.

But what’s different this time is that the City is gaining population without spreading out. All of this past decade’s population increase occurred within a set boundary line. For the first time in its history, Syracuse has managed to house more people without subdividing farmland or forest, without lengthening anyone’s commute, without extending the sewer mains.

This is a new kind of population growth for Onondaga County. It’s fiscally sound because it fosters growth without overextending municipal infrastructure. It’s environmentally sustainable because it accommodates new people without using up new land and without requiring people to spend an hour of everyday behind the wheel of a car. It’s exactly what our community needs in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century.