WASHINGTON -- Americans on the move are seeking space and sun, turning once-sleepy suburbs in Arizona, Nevada and California into the fastest-growing cities in the country.
The Phoenix suburb of Gilbert has grown by nearly 25 percent in a little over two years to lead the way, according to Census Bureau estimates being released Thursday. Communities around Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego also experienced population booms between April 2000 and July 2002.
Some of the new residents are people who left larger nearby cities. But much of the growth was attributable to the continued migration of Americans to the South and West.
"Most of the places aren't job centers. They are mostly residential, master-planned, large-scale and very homeowners-association heavy," said Robert Lang, a demographer with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.
Older, industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest such as St. Louis, Detroit and Pittsburgh continued losing residents. But some of the places that grew during the 1990s lost population as the economy cooled and housing prices remained high, said William Frey, demographer with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
For instance, San Francisco's population dropped nearly 2 percent between 2000 and 2002 after rising 7 percent over the 1990s. Two San Francisco suburbs, Sunnyvale and Daly City, also had declines.
The estimates are the first city population figures released by the federal government since the 2000 census. The Census Bureau used administrative records such as birth and death rolls and tax returns to rank the 242 cities with populations of 100,000 or more.
The numbers are used by the federal government in formulas that determine the distribution of more than $185 billion in funding for programs like Medicaid and foster care. States also use the updated estimates for funding allocations.
New York remains the country's largest city with 8.1 million residents, an increase of just under 1 percent, or about 76,000 people. It was followed by Los Angeles (3.8 million), Chicago (2.9 million), Houston (2 million) and Philadelphia (1.5 million).
Chicago lost about 9,800 residents during the period while Philadelphia dropped about 25,000.
Gilbert added that many people to bring its population to 135,000. Though it's still considered a town rather than a city, fewer of the dairy farms and wheat fields that dominated the landscape two decades ago remain. In their place are housing developments.
Growth comes with the usual assortment of headaches, most notably overcrowded schools and roads. Access to water is an especially acute problem in the dry Southwest.
"They say there are two kinds of roads here -- under construction and not enough lanes," said Rachelle Iadicicco, a housewife and mother of four who moved to Gilbert from St. Louis two years ago after her husband, a Lutheran minister, started a church.
The lower taxes and relative tranquility of the city make up for the traffic tie-ups, she said.
Two Las Vegas suburbs -- North Las Vegas and Henderson -- followed Gilbert on the list of fastest-growing cities, each surging over 17 percent, while two other Phoenix suburbs, Chandler and Peoria, rounded out the top five.
In fact, Peoria, Ariz., now is larger than Peoria, Ill. -- 123,239 residents compared with 112,670.
Three Los Angeles suburbs -- Irvine, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga -- were also among the 10 fastest-growing cities, as well as the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista. Growth in these areas was mainly spurred by the availability of more affordable homes and cheaper cost of living, said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California.
Joliet, Ill., a Chicago suburb, was the 10th-fastest growing city, surging 11 percent. Another Chicago suburb, Aurora, Ill., saw similar growth.
While there are more residents in each place making the hourlong drive into Chicago for work, both also benefited from an increase in local high-tech jobs and the revenues from riverboat casinos, said Max Dieber, research director for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission.
New residents are attracted to Joliet in part by its tax situation, Mayor Arthur Schultz said. Taxes haven't been raised in a decade because of gambling revenue, which has paid for a new police station and three new firehouses.
"We're a good working-class, blue-collar city," he said. "As long we give the people good services, we will continue to grow."
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