Census confirms city's reversal of fortune

In the 2010 census, not-so-sunny Philadelphia eclipses Phoenix. (Photos: Staff Photographer David Maialetti and Arizona Republic)

For the first time in half a century, Philadelphia’s population numbers finally are headed the right way: up.

After decades of decline, the increase of 8,456 residents over the last 10 years is a milestone to celebrate and zealously guard.

Rather than the size of the slight uptick in the city’s population, reported in the latest Census Bureau figures, what’s worth noting is that it was so long in the making.

A fortunate Mayor Nutter happens to be the city leader who can crow about the population gain. And he’s probably right that, in general, the city’s ability to retain and attract residents is a sign of “folks recognizing this city is moving in the right direction.”

Full credit for the apparent stabilization of the city’s population, though, reaches back across several mayoral administrations, and also stems from public-works projects that enhanced the city — such as the just-unveiled Convention Center expansion.

That confirms the value of good planning and making investments in the city’s long-term best interests, even in the face of here-and-now fiscal and political troubles.

With Center City and nearby neighborhoods driving much of the population increase — already a well-established trend — the population figures above all stand as a reminder of the importance of tending to the downtown.

The turnaround is largely a testament to the decades-long efforts to revitalize Center City — where boomers have moved in, lured by restaurants, culture, and tax abatements. Reducing crime and trimming the wage tax helped as well. But the progress could just as easily head in the other direction.

Given the continuing fiscal challenges, the city is fortunate to have the Center City District. Marking its 20th anniversary this month, the CCD has gone far beyond its core mission of picking up litter and fielding goodwill ambassadors. Its leadership on a number of public-space improvement projects, like the exciting makeover at Dilworth Plaza, has helped transform Center City.

But the census numbers also are being driven by growth in the city’s Hispanic and Asian populations. That demonstrates the importance of attracting immigrants who help revitalize aging neighborhoods. It hasn’t always been easy for Philadelphians to welcome newcomers, but the city appears to be getting better at it.

While the city has turned a corner, the gains could be temporary unless sustained by smart policies from City Hall and continued buy-in from private-sector business leaders, and some lawmakers in Harrisburg who still regard Philly as a four-letter word.

Not all growth is good: Witness the continued suburban sprawl in neighboring counties, which will strain infrastructure and increase municipal budgets. And even hot cities encounter setbacks. Widely admired Chicago just saw its population drop by nearly 7 percent.

Echoing Franklin’s line about keeping the young republic vital, Philadelphia finally has a growing population — if it can keep it.