What’s the full story behind Cincinnati’s 50-year population decline?

Cincinnati, like all peer cities, recorded its peak population in the 1950 and has steadily lost residents since. Specifically, Cincinnati has lost 205,000, or 43 percent of its peak population of 503,998 as recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the population of Cincinnati’s metropolitan statistical area has doubled to 2.2 million.

Contrary to the narrative perpetuated by those who practice the politics of decline, this loss of population is symptomatic not of variously corrupt or negligent city officials but is rather the outcome of social trends that have evolved well outside the purview of city government. What’s more, nationwide demographic trends and elevated living standards mean attracting 205,000 new residents would require the City of Cincinnati to transform itself physically into something entirely unlike what it is at present or was in 1950.

Cincinnati’s population has taken a recent downward trajectory, but there may be more to the story. Chart produced by UrbanCincy.

Demographic Changes since 1950
Entirely overlooked in the public discussion of city population decline is the end of the postwar “Baby Boom” which was enabled by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of oral contraceptives in 1960, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion in 1973. Between 1960 and 1975, the number of annual live births in the United States fell from 4.25 million to 3.1 million.

An academic assessment of how the plummeting birthrate affected Cincinnati’s population could consume weeks of research. But the drop in family size, along with the proliferation of separations and divorces, means nearly all Cincinnati homes and apartment units that were occupied by large families in the 1950s are today occupied by fewer people.

So for Cincinnati to regain its lost 205,000 residents, the number of people residing in existing homes and apartment units must increase dramatically, and new construction must be populated at something higher than today’s prevailing density. With no reason to expect that Cincinnati’s birthrate will suddenly increase to that of impoverished countries, all population growth must come from the city’s suburbs or from outside the region. The wealthier the newcomer, the more living space they can afford. So paradoxically, the successful pursuit of top talent frustrates the task of fitting 205,000 new residents within Cincinnati’s existing city limits.

Loss of Residential Neighborhoods
Cincinnati’s municipal boundaries have not changed since it achieved its peak population in 1950, but thousands of prewar homes and apartments have since been replaced by non-residential structures. This means Cincinnati not only lost tens of thousands of residents for construction of expressways, light industry, and other purposes, but these properties are generally unavailable today for any effort to repopulate the city.

Cincinnati’s loss of residents and residential land was not limited to expressway construction and urban renewal projects. In the neighborhoods collectively known as Uptown, physical growth of universities, hospitals and other institutions has resulted in the demolition of over 1,000 homes and apartments since 1950.

The West End, shown here in 1959, was demolished shortly after from 1960 and 1963 for Interstate 75 and the Queensgate industrial park. Photograph by Dave Tunison.

The Politics of Population Decline
A variety of unscrupulous local politicians and media figures cleverly play two sides of Cincinnati’s population loss narrative. According to them, Cincinnati has lost population due to high crime, high taxes, and corrupt city governance. But should the city start attracting new residents, the perceived “bad element” will be pushed outside city limits and into the areas of those trumpeting this false narrative.

Therefore, with every avuncular call for Cincinnati to improve itself, these figures work to undermine the city’s capital improvements, and have succeeded in creating a suburban culture that looks upon the city and those who support it with deep suspicion. What’s more, those who play the politics of decline know that Cincinnati cannot physically house 205,000 more residents without construction of dozens of hi-rise apartment blocks. Such apartment clusters and the subway system necessary to move their residents throughout the city would be met with excited accusations of “communism”.

Certainly, Cincinnati would benefit from new residents, especially in its under-populated neighborhoods where many historic structures are at risk of demolition. The arrival of 205,000 residents within the city limits would resolve many of the city’s current problems but would force higher apartment rents, increase noise and traffic congestion, and would motivate the demolition of historic structures for new multistory apartments and commercial buildings.

So while virtually every old American city has lost population within its city limits since 1950, some of that loss has occurred for reasons unrelated to the commonly heard decline narrative. Family sizes are smaller, non-residential buildings have been built in some former residential areas, and new neighborhoods have formed outside city limits to house those displaced by commercial and institutional growth. Considering these realities, the City of Cincinnati will likely never again be the home of 504,000 people, and so should not measure itself against its former peak population.


  • zschmiez

    Are there other examples of “Border” cities like Cincinnati, where real estate and income taxes are split and do not go back to 1 location?

    Hoboken/Newark is one, but I ignore that given the population of greater NYC. Quad Cities in IA? St. Louis?

    I’m always curious as to how the tax situation (given 3 states of residents) affects Cincy’s funding. Seems like the city and the county have to accommodate and have infrastructure for 2.2M people, but only get revenues from 33% of that #.

    • The easiest example I would give would be Kansas City between Missouri and Kansas.

    • Ian Mitchell

      Also Jacksonville, Reno, Philadelphia, DC, Chattanooga, Omaha, Portland, El Paso, Fargo, depending how how close it needs to be to be a “border” city.

    • The major issue afflicting Cincinnati is that is the home of the majority of the region’s poor. Under Ohio law, the city is required to police itself, which it does at great expense. But the jail is funded by the county. This to some extent diffuses the expense to the city of being forced, largely by federal acts, to be the venue of the majority of the region’s criminal activity.

  • s
    ×Even though I am a recent “transplant” here I see more empty edifaces than in Los Angeles, my hometown. There are vast abandoned apts and houses here. Although this most likely falls short of the 205k decline, that was gradual and more than likely based upon the economic opportunities to actually settle here. What’s a good reason to live or move here? A thriving “name your favorite” Industry would bring people in. Tax breaks for businesses to relocate or build. Its not exactly heaven in earth to start a business here, in my experience at least. I can’t agree that birth control had anything to do with the decline. California’s population has increased because, well , its California. Oceans,mountains,crazy creative people, innovation, daring, its been up and down economically but it’s always been a great place to live the dream. Chicago is a border city… Miami, san Francisco, … s×Even though I am a recent “transplant” here I see more empty edifaces than in Los Angeles, my hometown. There are vast abandoned apts and houses here. Although this most likely falls short of the 205k decline, that was gradual and more than likely based upon the economic opportunities to actually settle here. What’s a good reason to live or move here? A thriving “name your favorite” Industry would bring people in. Tax breaks for businesses to relocate or build. Its not exactly heaven in earth to start a business here, in my experience at least. I can’t agree that birth control had anything to do with the decline. California’s population has increased because, well , its California. Oceans,mountains,crazy creative people, innovation, daring, its been up and down economically but it’s always been a great place to live the dream. Chicago is a border city… Miami, san Francisco, …
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    • What happened is that the falling birthrate meant cities could *only* regain lost population through transplants, not by having more children. Compare this to earlier eras, when cities that suffered mass casualties due to war or disease were able to recover their lost population quickly.

    • Undoubtedly a factor. For example, in 1945 most of European and Russian major cities were little more than ruined charnel houses, yet look at them today. Somehow, there is a connection.

    • Try starting a business in California. The regulatory and tax burden is crushing according to several former Californian colleagues of mine. That is how they ended up in Cincinnati and Virginia respectively.

    • Ian Mitchell

      Why would anyone go to Ohio when there’s Texas, Wyoming, Nevada, Florida, Georgia, North carolina, a slew of more business-friendly states?

    • Constantinos

      Nothing friendly about Wyoming or Georgia.

  • Sorry cut and paste on a phone is dangerous. Sorry for the redundant redundancies.

    • I tried to go in and clean it up. I simply removed the duplicate text. If there is anything else that was left off from your cut/paste attempt let me know.

  • Ian

    We may never be able to reach that population high again without further annexation (Norwood, St Bernard), but there are definitely ways in which the existing land inside city limits could be better utilized.

    Half of the former Lincoln Court public housing site in the West End sits undeveloped, and a good portion of Lower Price Hill where old industrial structures were removed sits vacant as well.

    There’s also plenty of valuable land in the city that’s wasted on oversized, inefficient expressway interchanges – the entanglement of I-75, US 50 and their ramps to downtown streets, the sprawled, confusing Colerain/I-74/Beekman interchange, and the I-75/Reagan Highway interchange. These could all be modified to have a much smaller footprint and free up lots of land for residential development.

    • I agree with you, but as Jake mentioned in the article, households have changed dramatically since 1950. Over-the-Rhine at one point had 50,000 residents. Even if the neighborhood were 100% occupied today, it wouldn’t come close to that number because now people have walk-in closets, they live alone, and there is all that glorious parking. So in historic buildings that once housed 50 people, you might have only 10-12 today.

    • Cincinnati could easily surpass a population count of 500,000 and climb to 800,000, putting it on equal footing with Columbus in the state, were it to pull off a city-county merger with Hamilton County. The devil is in the details of getting the rest of the county to get on board with the concept of regional government, but it has been done successfully in other cities, most notably Louisville and Indianapolis. Not to mention a new Metro Cincinnati would rank once more in the Top 20 of US cities for population, effectively putting Cincy back on the map as a major city.

    • Changing local government boundaries might have benefits, but metro Cincinnati is already 15% larger than Columbus. That wouldn’t be changed. Businesses look at metros not municipalities. Only once they decide on the metro do they consider the municipality.

    • The danger of that is then suburban interests would completely overwhelm urban concerns. This a problem in Indianapolis and to a lesser extent Louisville. Metro Moves is a good illustration. City support for the project was estimated to be about 50/50, but with the entire county involved it overwhelmingly lost at nearly 30/70. So the City said “fine, if the county doesn’t want to play ball then we’ll just do our own inner city streetcar project.” In a consolidated government even the streetcar would be subject to the opinions of those in Blue Ash, Indian Hill, or Green Township. No thanks!

      If the urban part of city (OTR, Price Hill, Corryville, Walnut Hills, etc.) made up more than half the population of the county then I think Consolidation could be beneficial, but as it is now it would just dilute urban interests to irrelevance. Cincinnati has enough problems fighting with its own outer neighborhoods like Westwood, Sayler Park, Mt. Lookout, and Mt. Washington, it doesn’t need to take on the rest of the county too.

  • That photo is heartbreaking.

  • Well put Jake. It certainly isn’t an overstatement to talk about a “War on Cincinnati”. It seems to me that the only why to fight thugs is with some thuggery of your own. How about a “War on _________” to remind them that they shouldn’t play this game unless they are prepared to lose? What do you all think of this approach?

    • A legitimate concern, Matt, but also a topic that will elicit an outburst of emotional responses. For example, over on the Urban Ohio forum, every time this subject resurfaces it causes a proverbial firestorm of harsh feelings. I know by the few comments that I’ve made myself–just suggest that “draconian measures” are needed and watch what happens.

    • That’s because it’s true and is the one thing that might actually undermine those fighting the war on cincinnati. People don’t attack the irrelevant. They attack things that are powerful and important, either actually or potentially.

  • I, personally, don’t feel that it is impossible for Cincinnati to at least gain 50,000-100,000 new residents. I mean obviously this isn’t going to happen tomorrow… but over the span of the next 50 years if the city plays it’s cards right and urban living stays a continued trend, it could happen.

  • Chances are that if you go to the far suburbs of Cincinnati: Anderson, Union Centre etc, you will meet
    people who once lived in the basin, or at least their parents did. Section 8 housing has helped to make
    the perimiters of the old city a perminant slum.

  • Charlie Kaufman

    The author brings up some very valid and interesting points as to fundamental population declines amongst cities with a similar profile to Cincinnati’s, in particular the prevalence of contraception and abortion that curtailed birthing rates, the changing family structure, and the amount of people currently occupying existing structures and land. That said, there is still the stigma that people might leave a city like Cincinnati in favor of another. That is a very real concern. As businesses have become more mobile and/or have moved out of cities and into more affordable suburban locations, it is no surprise that the Cincinnati “statistical” area (whatever that means) will grow. However, the need for a centralized urban hub to be the social, cultural, and economic nerve-center of a region is not as pronounced as it once was. That being the case, those individuals and businesses that wish to reside in a rich urban setting might well abandon one for another. Let’s be honest. River commerce, which was so instrumental in Cincinnati’s early growth, is barely a fraction of what it once was. The cities along the East coast are accessible to Europe, by air and sea, while those on the West coast are accessible to Asia and South America. In the meantime, Columbus is at least a straight shot along the rail lines from places like New York, even if it is land-locked, and has therefore developed into more of a Midwestern hot spot.
    I love Cincinnati and I will give the benefit of the doubt that part of the population decline has to do with social trends and laws that have controlled the overall population. The again, the American population has only increased over the years, as has that of the world. Fact is, certain cities become more favorable to others. I think Cincinnati is a great place, but tastes, trends, and necessity might have passed it by. There is something to be said for the idea that it must become “attractive” again. Chiquita should never have been able to leave, and if lack of available flights out of CVG and a lack of a suitable workforce in Cincinnati are to blame, then that’s a real problem.
    Again, I respect the notion that urban populations are subject to a fluctuating social and legal climate. But, Cincinnati must once again be seen as a place that can attract individuals and businesses. Mass transit improvements and other political and infrastructure changes must take place for that to happen.

  • Matt

    Jake: Thanks for this intelligent article demonstrating that city decline is a combination of multiple factors and cannot be oversimplified. Thanks also for not being afraid to mention the hot-button topics of abortion and contraception and their role. I’d like to throw a couple more items into the mix. #1: Racism. The deplorable practice of “redlining,” basically manipulating the mortgage market to force people into racially segregated neighborhoods, make informal segregation formal. To remedy this, the courts imposed forced school busing for integration. At that point, those who did not want to see their kids bused across town, or those who didn’t want their kids mixing with other races (it’s always dangerous to speculate about motive), got out of town if they had the means to do so. This led to a concentration of poverty and chronic social issues that make it so hard to have the good schools that families desire in the inner city. #2: Welfare. Giving handouts to the poor seemed like a good idea until we saw the effects, especially, of a system that paid single mothers more, thereby discouraging marriage and fostering the breakup of the family unit and exacerbating social problems. #3: The Automobile. The automobile, and the government-subsidized highway system, made it possible for those with means to go to where they could escape these problems, and they did. These things did not happen overnight, and it will take a long time to fix them.

  • e_elayne

    I read once that 1/3 of Over the Rhine’s buildings are unoccupied. What are the current statistics on this? Even with bigger living spaces and less people per square foot, still seems that we could fit a lot of people in that number of buildings…for one thing, there’s a lot of room now in my alma mater SCPA’s old building on Sycamore.