Should Milwaukee’s Population Hit a Million? Our New Mayor Thinks So

Mayor Cavalier Johnson has set a seven-digit population goal for this city. Here’s what that would mean for the people who live here.

If you live in Milwaukee, your new mayor wants you to be one in a million.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson believes the city should strive for a long-term population goal of 1 million, propelling it into the ranks of America’s largest metropolises. That would be a 73% increase from Milwaukee’s 2020 population of 577,222, ranked 31st among U.S. cities.

It’s an idea rooted in the New Urbanist philosophy that Johnson shares with former Mayor John Norquist: Promoting development in densely populated, bustling neighborhoods where residents can walk, bike or ride public transit to work and shop without cars. And it’s closely tied to a goal Johnson shares with many other local leaders: Attracting more family-supporting jobs. 

“Cities are the lifeblood of states, the lifeblood of the country,” Johnson says. “If you’re not growing, you’re losing. I don’t want Milwaukee to be on the losing end.”

Johnson, a native of Milwaukee and its first elected Black mayor, sees big cities as dynamic, vital places that are attractive to live in, such as New York, Chicago and Paris. But the vitality of a city depends on a local economy that generates jobs, with ripple effects promoting healthy neighborhoods and public safety, he says.

“Years ago, Milwaukee was continually growing,” Johnson says. “We were a city of 700,000 people.” If family-supporting jobs had stayed in the city, the population would have reached 1 million years ago, he adds.

But that didn’t happen.


 

 

 

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Milwaukee’s population grew in every census from 1860 to 1960, peaking at 741,324, when this was the nation’s 11th-largest city. That century of growth paralleled the city’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse, where international immigrants and Black Southerners came to find factory jobs.


The Road Not Taken

AMONG THE FIVE LARGEST Midwestern cities, Detroit has lost population at the greatest rate since 1960, while Milwaukee and Chicago have notched significant losses. But if Milwaukee had kept growing at the same rate that it did between 1930 and 1960, it would have surpassed Indianapolis and Columbus, instead of falling behind them, and its population would have reached 1.2 million in 2020. Assuming no change in other cities’ growth rates, Milwaukee would be the nation’s 10th-largest city.

 


By the 1960s, however, freeway construction was helping to fuel “white flight” to the suburbs, and the recessions of the 1970s and ’80s hit the manufacturing sector hard, dealing a disproportionate blow to Milwaukee’s factory-heavy economy. Compared with peak levels, city-based jobs fell 10% from 1980 to 2019, to just under 300,000, according to research by Marc Levine, professor emeritus of urban studies at UW-Milwaukee. Manufacturing jobs were a big share of that loss, plunging 79% from 1963 to 2019, to only 25,500. The city’s share of the metro area’s total jobs has plummeted, too, from 57% in 1970 to 34% in 2019. 

As a result, Milwaukee’s population has dropped in every census from 1970 to 2020, with its ranking falling out of the top 20 U.S. cities in 2010.

What if the population had continued to grow? At the rate Milwaukee was growing between 1930 and 1960 – an average of 9% each decade – it would have passed the 1 million mark in 2000. But in response to then-Mayor Frank Zeidler’s energetic annexations in the 1950s, the Legislature made it easier for suburban towns to incorporate, locking the city into its current boundaries.

Squeezing another 423,000 people comfortably into the same space would require some big changes. For one thing, neighborhoods throughout the city – not only Downtown – would need to attract denser development. Johnson said he would target areas along heavily traveled bus lines, like Bronzeville, Walker’s Point and the neighborhoods around the North Side nexus of 27th and Center streets and Fond du Lac Avenue. 

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson; Photo by Sara Stathas

“We can’t get to 1 million just by people living in Downtown condos,” says Robert Schneider, professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee. “[Johnson] is making a strong statement of equity: ‘I believe in Milwaukee neighborhoods.’” 

Levine says it’s unclear how many city jobs would need to be added to support a million residents, but it’s clearly a lot. To stimulate neighborhood development and reverse the city’s job loss, Johnson’s economic plan calls for attracting new businesses and remote workers, while fostering technology startups – particularly those run by women, people of color and veterans – and helping small businesses grow, coupled with expanding job training and affordable housing. 

Managing that kind of growth in a sustainable way also would require major changes in transportation, to depend less on automobiles. “The question is not how large to grow, but how to grow … in a way that minimizes growing pains,” says Chris McCahill, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative at UW-Madison. 

Johnson advocates “people-centered development” that “doesn’t require someone to have an automobile to experience commerce or life in their neighborhood.” 

The mayor says he would encourage development patterns that allow residents to easily walk or bicycle to neighborhood shops and restaurants, and to ride buses or streetcars to other parts of the city. He also would seek federal money to fund long-stalled expansion plans for The Hop, and he would support the county’s plans to establish and expand bus rapid transit service. 

A combination of strong regional transit, walkable neighborhoods and affordable housing along major transit routes would allow the population to grow without significantly increasing traffic congestion, McCahill says. But Schneider says increasing congestion could be “one of the cultural shifts that we need to wrap our heads around in Milwaukee.” More development brings more activity, and the resulting traffic can be “a sign of a prosperous community,” he says. 

“Picture Broadway and St. Paul near the Public Market in summer,” Schneider says. “Yes, the street is busy, so drivers can’t zoom through. But the upside is huge: busy sidewalks with people shopping, eating and having a good time.” Bicycle and transit access is easy, “and the streets are safer for everyone, because the cars are going more slowly.

“The mayor’s vision could lead to similar street scenes across the city, supporting local businesses in corridors like Villard Avenue, Martin Luther King Drive, Cesar Chavez Drive, Mitchell Street and more,” Schneider says.

Those changes could take a while. If Milwaukee’s population started growing now at the same rate it did from 1930 to 1960, it eventually would reach
1 million – but not until 2090. If the 35-year-old mayor lived to see that, he would be 103. Notably, Johnson isn’t setting a timeline for reaching his goal.

Over a 30-year period, 800,000 to 850,000 might be a more realistic population goal, Schneider says. That would require a healthy growth rate of about 13% or 14% each decade from now to 2050. Continuing to grow at that rate would bring Milwaukee’s population to 1 million by 2070.

But Schneider agrees with setting a big goal like
1 million to start a conversation about neighborhood development and transportation: “It forces people to get out of their current mindsets and think differently.” 


Where No City Has Gone Before

EVEN AMONG AMERICA’S fastest-growing cities, it’s hard to find one that has pulled off what Mayor Cavalier Johnson wants Milwaukee to do: Reverse a 60-year-long, 22% drop in population, then grow 73% without expanding its borders.

“While the mayor’s goal of reaching 1 million residents is laudable, it’s really quite unrealistic,” says Marc Levine, professor emeritus of urban studies at UW-Milwaukee. Excluding Sun Belt examples that aren’t comparable, “no major city has done that in the U.S. over the past 40 years.” 

Some Southern and Western cities have grown explosively in recent decades. Austin, Fort Worth and Charlotte more than doubled their populations from 1990 to 2020. But those cities already were growing in most prior decades, and they have annexed large swaths of neighboring territory.

Three of the Midwest’s fastest-growing major cities in that period – Columbus (up 43%), Madison (up 41%) and Indianapolis (up 21%) – also faced few if any previous population dips.

Robert Schneider, a professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee, points to several big cities that have grown after shrinking for at least 20 years, including Denver (down 9% from 1970 to 1990, then up 53%), Seattle (down 11% from 1960 to 1980, then up 49%) and San Francisco (down 12% from 1950 to 1980, then up 29%).

Johnson isn’t the only mayor seeking that kind of turnaround. Three other large U.S. cities lost population in the last 30 years – Detroit (down 38%), Baltimore (down 20%) and Chicago (down 1%) – a period in which Milwaukee’s population dipped 8%. Detroit and Baltimore have been losing population since 1960, as Milwaukee has, while Chicago rebounded in two of the last three decades.

Like Johnson, those cities’ leaders are pursuing New Urbanist strategies, Schneider says. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is following a similar playbook of developing walkable neighborhoods with improved transit, while eliminat ing blight and avoiding gentrification. 

Duggan summed up that approach in his 2013 campaign slogan: “Every neighborhood has a future.” 


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s July Issue.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.