The 2020 U.S. census promises to be a cliffhanger for anyone who plans, manages or governs an American city or is thinking of moving to one.  As the nation recovered from the Great Recession that began in 2007-2008, the American city experienced a regrowth. In 2013, the Census Bureau reported 2.3 million more people living in urban areas than in 2012, with 269.9 million people living in metropolitan areas. The bureau reported that between 2012 and 2013, just 92 out of the nation’s 381 metropolitan areas lost population. Based on data from the 2010 census, it was clear that American population had shifted sharply to metropolitan and urban areas.

What does this mean for cities and metro areas looking to meet the needs of a growing citizen base?

What will the 2020 census reveal?

First, it is necessary to understand what the census will entail. The data collected from the 2020 census will take many months, even running into a few years, for data to be fully compiled, analyzed and reported out. This is unfortunate, since pressing questions of policy and investment hang on what the data reveals. Data collected from the census will calculate information about citizens, including age, gender, ethnicity and more. The federal government uses this data to determine funding for major initiatives such as healthcare, education, infrastructure and transportation as well as the political representation each area receives.

Challenges of the census

Today, prosperity is concentrated in larger cities, so current residents have an incentive to stay even as the rising costs in these prosperous cities are keeping many newcomers away. Although the most recent census data reveals a significant slump in the internal mobility of Americans, especially among millennials, the nation nevertheless remains one of the most mobile countries in the world.

This culture of mobility is just one barrier to collecting accurate data on citizens. The Census Bureau categorizes “hard-to-count” populations as highly mobile people, people experiencing homelessness, and racial or ethnic minorities to name a few. Urban areas typically have higher concentrations of these “harder-to-count” populations, so it is critical that local governments have a plan in place to account for them.

How can local governments prepare?

An important step in the process is to communicate to citizens and personnel how the census data will be collected. The 2020 census is expected to be much more technologically sophisticated than ever before, so local governments need to be ready. Citizens will be able to fill out the information online for the first time, making it much more accessible to larger portions of the population, including millennials, who often don’t utilize traditional census collection methods like direct mail and landline calls. Cities and local governments are encouraged to build awareness through social media campaigns, workshops and other community events to increase participation, especially within hard-to-count populations.   

Using the census to build better communities

In the coming years, municipalities should seek to leverage the census data in order to cultivate safer, smarter communities. The 2010 census showed that for the first time in 90 years, major American cities had grown more than the suburbs associated with them. Today’s city planners, leaders and managers have a great deal of research to draw on as they attempt to create living environments that balance the features, benefits and values that are most important and attractive to residents and prospective residents.