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City and County Populations on the Rise

June 29, 2018 | More News

Recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show continued gains in the county and resurgence in the city.

Because Knox County is so urbanized, those of us who live here often don’t distinguish between City of Knoxville limits and the unincorporated county. Instead, we consider the entire community simply as ‘Knoxville.’ But if someone from out-of-town asks you how many people live in Knoxville, here are the facts you’ll need:

According to a recent release by the U.S. Census Bureau, Knox County’s 2017 population is 461,860. Within that total are 187,347 residents who call the City of Knoxville home. Also included is the Town of Farragut, Knox County’s only other incorporated place, with a 2017 total of 22,729 (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Knox County Population, 2017

Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of City Population

From these figures, we can see that Knoxville captures about 41 percent of the total county population. This may surprise residents who expected a larger share, but we have to look back to the early part of the 1900s to find those bigger numbers (Figure 2). In 1920, nearly 70 percent of Knox County’s residents lived within the city. After World War II, though, shares began to drop. That was the start of large-scale suburbanization, which sent droves of people from cities nationwide to lower-density outlying areas. Impacts of this trend were locally noteworthy – 1960 Census figures showed that Knoxville’s shares of total county population plummeted to 44.6 percent in just 15 years.

Then, in an interesting twist, the trend seemed to reverse locally during the 1960s, as the 1970 Census marked a city population share of 63.2 percent. That seeming turnaround, however, was not a demographic shift, but a result of major annexations of county territory by the City of Knoxville during the 1960s. At the start of the decade, the city’s land area was 26.3 square miles. By the end, annexations of large expanses, including Fountain City, resulted in total land area of 77.6 square miles.

With the added land to City of Knoxville jurisdiction came considerable population. By 1970, the city had gained nearly 63,000 ‘new’ residents, for a total of 174,587. That 56 percent increase is very visible on the Knoxville population trend line depicted in Figure 3.

Figure 2

Knox County Population History

Year Knox County Population Knoxville Population Knoxville Share (%) of County Total
1920 112,926 77,818 68.9
1930 155,902 105,802 67.9
1940 178,468 111,580 62.5
1950 223,007 124,769 55.9
1960 250,523 111,827 44.6
1970 276,293 174,587 63.2
1980 319,694 175,045 54.8
1990 336,591 172,962 51.4
2000 382,887 173,848 45.4
2010 432,972 178,455 41.2
2017 461,860 187,347 40.6

Figure 3

Knoxville and Knox County Population, 1900-2017

Suburbanization continued over the next few decades, and Knoxville’s shares of county population steadily fell.

Tail of a Trend Shows City Resurgence

With that in mind, recent population numbers for the city show some exciting changes. In the past seven years, Knoxville’s population growth has started to accelerate, adding several thousand residents. While the trend line shown in Figure 3 characterized flat, no-growth conditions for five decades, the tail of the trend is the headline. Its upturn is subtle, but the numbers are real – 9,000 new city residents since 2010. A closer look at the city’s population trend line, focused on the past 10 years, clearly marks the turnaround (Figure 4). Accommodating recent growth, almost 6,400 new housing units were added to city sectors in the past 10 years, with more than 40 percent built in the center city/University of Tennessee campus area.

Figure 4

City of Knoxville Population, 2008-2017

County Growth Makes Headlines Too

Stealing some of the city’s headlines, Knox County’s growth trend shows an impressive 20,000 new residents in the county balance (the area not including the city) since 2010. That comes as little surprise as Knox County has seen steady growth since the start of the last century.

More recently, since 1990, the county balance recorded an annual average growth rate of 1.9 percent. That may not sound too impressive, but it translates to 4,100 new residents each and every year since 1990. (By comparison, the city’s average annual growth rate since 1990 was 0.3 percent.) As a result, Knox County recorded a population gain of 125,269, comprised of 14,385 (11 percent share of the total) in the city and 110,884 (89 percent share of the total) in the county balance (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Local Growth: City and County Balance, 1990-2017

Lots of New Neighbors Moving In

Demographers have provided us with basic information about the source of local population growth – it is driven by births, deaths, and net migration. Since 2010, Knox County’s population grew by nearly 29,000. Of that total, 7,300 was net gain from births outnumbering deaths. But the primary force was in-migration of new residents. Nearly 75 percent of local growth was comprised of in-migrants arriving in numbers much higher than those moving out of the county, netting 21,500 new residents, an average of 3,100 each year (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Knox County Components of Population Change, 2010-2017

Big-Picture Look at Local Population Change

Knox County is part of the larger Knoxville metropolitan statistical area (MSA), a collection of urbanized, economically-tied counties. According to 2017 Census Bureau figures, Knoxville MSA population is 877,104, with Knox County accounting for half of that total (Figure 7). MSA population has grown steadily since 2010, though not as fast as other areas, including Tennessee and the U.S.

Figure 7

Metro Area Population

Area 2017 Population Growth Rate (%) Since 2010
Knoxville MSA 877,104 4.6
Anderson County 76,257 1.5
Blount County 129,929 5.5
Campbell County 39,648 -2.7
Grainger County 23,144 1.9
Knox County 461,860 6.7
Loudon County 52,152 7.1
Morgan County 21,636 -1.7
Roane County 53,036 -2.1
Union County 19,442 1.7
Tennessee 6,715,984 5.7
United States 325,719,178 5.3

While Knox County shines as the economic engine of the MSA, its 6.7 percent seven-year growth rate was outpaced by Loudon County, which reported a 7.1 percent gain. If big growth numbers are your thing, look to the Nashville area – of the top-10 growth counties in the state, Nashville’s MSA counties grabbed seven spots, each with double-digit gains.

For those keeping score, Knox County placed 17th out of 95 counties statewide in growth since 2010. Some say growth is good, and it is for things like economic strength and community diversity. Others recognize growth has costs too, like infrastructure demands and environmental challenges. So maybe 17th is a good middle ground.

More Population Information Available

If you’re interested in more local population statistics, including detailed socioeconomic measures covering topics like income, education, family structure, race, age, and housing, be sure to visit the population pages on MPC’s website. The data used in this report are available here. Questions or comments, contact Terry Gilhula at terry.gilhula@knoxmpc.org.