1990 to 2000: Ten years of population change in California

More diverse than we thought

by Sherman Lewis


n general, California's population keeps growing. However, looking at the last ten years for all city and county populations, the growth was geographically uneven. Four categories can be distinguished:

  • Declining where an area lost over 5 percent of its population over ten years,
  • Sustainable where population varied between 5 percent loss and 5 percent gain,
  • Moderate growth where population grew by more than 5 percent to 10 percent, and
  • Hypergrowth where population grew by more than 10 percent.

    The “sustainable” definition is based on a judgment that, all things considered, something in the range of plus-or-minus 5 percent over 10 years is probably more sustainable than higher growth. It does not mean that all places should have constant population. For example, in the short grass prairie, the loss of people has allowed the land and wildlife to recover a bit, while in certain central cities huge investments in housing, businesses, and infrastructure are decaying because of a loss of population. Similarly, growth in existing areas oriented to walking and transit has far less impact than the same growth in open space oriented to cars. Sustainability also requires changing our technology and consumption.

    These caveats are mentioned because advocates of population stabilization are sometimes perceived as mindless, unsophisticated advocates of a single issue approach.

    We will look first at cities (including unincorporated areas), then at the 58 counties.

California Cities, 1990-2000


    The “cities” list, to cover the whole state, includes not only 473 cities, but also three counties that have no incorporated cities (Alpine, Mariposa, and Trinity) and the unincorporated areas of the other counties, which cover large areas outside cities and may be rural or densely urbanized. Only one county was all incorporated city: San Francisco.

    Unincorporated area population grew 11.7 percent while the state grew 13.8 percent, indicating a trend toward more living in incorporated areas. Unincorporated areas may have population transferred to cities by incorporation or annexation. The figures below are adjusted for incorporations but not for annexations. (Cities created after 1990 were ignored and their 2000 populations included in the unincorporated area.) Annexations may hide some growth in the unincorporated areas.

    Declining: 20 cities declined an average of 8.3 percent over the ten year period. These are all so small that the loss for all 20 was only about 30,000 people. Two were unincorporated areas. The biggest city here was Alameda, now 72,300; the highest loss, 7,200, was by Seaside.

    Sustainable: 117 cities grew an average of 1.9 percent over ten years. Their numbers are more substantial than the declining category, totaling about 4,200,000 in 2000. They grew by less than 80,000 people, an amount that people interested in sustainability find really exciting.

    Some cities seem to be stable accidently, others seem built out, and some may be succeeding at intentionally limiting growth by using zoning. Don't look for Sebastopol here, however; despite its reputation, it wound up in the hypergrowth category.

    Seven of the 20 larger stable places were the unincorporated areas. The biggest stable population places were, from smaller to larger, Encinitas (pop. 58,000), Palo Alto, Monterey Park, Montebello, Mountain View, Shasta County unincorporated, Santa Monica, Alhambra, Compton, Butte County unincorporated, Monterey County unincorporated, Berkeley, Inglewood, San Joaquin County unincorporated, Pasadena, Santa Cruz County unincorporated, Torrance, Santa Barbara County unincorporated, Huntington Beach, and Kern County unincorporated (pop. 267,000).

    Few places are famous for sustainability policies, but then again Chambers of Commerce are not known to brag about population stability. Sustainability enthusiasts, however, might do well to take a closer look to find out why these places work.

    Moderate Growth: The moderate growth places had more than twice the population of the sustainable places. The 103 moderate cities grew an average of 6.8 percent, from 10.0 million to 10.7 million. Seventeen places over 100,000 are found, with the largest place and largest amount of growth in Los Angeles. At 3.7 million population, LA is just really big, so a small percent of growth produces a large number of people. It grew only 6 percent, but that amounted to 209,000 people, more than any place else in the state.

    The other 17 places over 100,000 are, from smaller to larger, Burbank (pop. 100,000), Ventura, Santa Clara, Norwalk, West Covina, El Monte, Vallejo, Concord, Tulare County unincorporated, Fresno County unincorporated, Sonoma County unincorporated, Glendale, Oakland, Long Beach, San Francisco, and Los Angles County unincorporated (pop. 1.0 million).

    The three above categories declining, sustainable, and moderate growth combined had 15.2 million people in 2000 and 5 percent of growth. In short, growth is not such a big problem in areas with almost half the state's population.

    Hypergrowth: Hypergrowth places are where we find almost all growth in California from 1990 to 2000. The first three categories gained 727,000 people; the hypergrowth places gained 3,385,000. Hypergrowth is so big, we will look at two categories: low, with growth from 10 percent to 18.6 percent, and high, with more than 19 percent.

    Low Hypergrowth: 102 cities grew from 8.8 million to 10.1 million, which was 14 percent growth. Of these, 27 had more than 100,000 population: Daly City (pop. 104,000), San Luis Obispo County unincorporated, Stanislaus County unincorporated, Downey, Costa Mesa, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Fullerton, Orange, Sunnyvale, Alameda County unincorporated, Pomona, Ontario, Garden Grove, Contra Costa County unincorporated, San Bernardino, Modesto, Fremont, Stockton, Riverside, Santa Ana, San Bernadino County unincorporated, Sacramento, San Diego County unincorporated, Sacramento County unincorporated, San Jose, and San Diego (pop. 1,223,000).

    High hypergrowth: The second category had growth over 19 percent. Why divide hypergrowth between 18.6 percent and 19 percent? The reason is Mexico. From 1990 to 2000, the Mexican population grew by 18.8 percent; and 171 California cities are growing faster than Mexico.

    The difference is that Mexico knows it has a population problem and is doing something about it. Californians assume growth is either good or inevitable, and that there is something politically incorrect about wanting to do something about it, even though what is most needed is to improve the status of women.

    The politically powerful of Californian accept or support hyper-growth. Corporate and financial leaders, publishers and editors, and elected officials generally celebrate California's growth. Mexico's growth rate, meanwhile, fell from 3 percent per year in the 50s and 60s to 1.7 percent in the 90s, an amazing feat that helps support Mexico's rising per capita income. The US Census Bureau estimates Mexico's growth rate will fall to .4 percent per year in the 2040s, which is 4 percent over a decade, within the sustainable range.

    The 171 high hypergrowth cities grew by 33.5 percent, from 6.5 million to 8.6 million. Of these, 22 places were over 100,000 population: Placer County unincorporated (pop. 100,700), Palmdale, Lancaster, El Dorado County unincorporated, Corona, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Escondido, Hayward, Moreno Valley, Irvine, Santa Rosa, Salinas, Santa Clarita, Oceanside, Oxnard, Chula Vista, Bakersfield, Orange County unincorporated, Anaheim, Fresno, and Riverside County unincorporated (pop. 490,400). The winner in the race to the bottom was Brentwood, with 208 percent growth, eleven times faster than Mexico.

California Counties, 1990-2000

    Turning now to the 58 counties, we will summarize the decade for the same population as above, just using county lines instead of cities, unincorporated areas, and counties without cities.

    No counties declined and five were sustainable, all of them small rural counties totaling only 145,000 people combined: Modoc, Inyo, Trinity, Siskiyou, and Yuba.

    There were 11 moderate growth counties, including three in the Bay Area: San Francisco (a surprise for some people who think it is built out), Marin (a surprise for me since I thought it had tougher growth controls), and San Mateo.

    The rest are hypergrowth counties, 17 of which are growing faster than Mexico. In the Bay Area, the two fastest-growing counties, Contra Costa and Sonoma, grew 18.1 percent, virtually the same as Mexico.

    The large number of sustainable and moderate growth cities and counties suggests that sustainability is possible: even in California, even if by accident rather than design. The question needing further research is whether the sustainable places are getting there on purpose, and equitably. A few presumably are getting there accidently and equitably, if only because stability may allow for housing affordability. Some may be getting there in ways that are not socially equitable. Some may be sustainable but not happy about it if they feel their per capita income is too low. Others may be trying to accomplish what they are in fact achieving, and doing it with equity. This story would be worth telling. One thing is clear, that the many lower growth places in such a high growth state give some hope that we may be able to influence our population destiny.

    Source: California Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit, California State Census Data Center. Census 2000 PL94-171, Table One: Population Change 1990 - 2000, Incorporated Cities by County

    Sherman Lewis, Professor of Political Science, CSUH 510-538-3692 v; /-3693 fax; slewiscsuhayward.edu.