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Is the sun about to set on Chicago’s third-place population ranking?

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Hey, local and national media: Remember those stories announcing that by 2025, Houston will have leapfrogged Chicago to become the nation’s third-largest city? Hey, Facebookers: Remember how you ballyhooed the announcement on social media? Patrick Jankowski, head of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, has one thing to say to all of you: Stop.

“Seriously,” he says. “It’s not true.”

Ground zero for the purported rankings reshuffle was a September Reuters piece by Jon Herskovitz, “America’s City Rankings Set for Texas-sized Shake Up; Houston to Edge Past Chicago,” which led with a description of Houston as hidden in a haze of petrochemical plants. (Would those be located in The Heights? Montrose? Galleria?) It then stated: “Houston is projected to have a population of 2.54 million to 2.7 million by 2025, while Chicago will be at 2.5 million, according to official data from both states provided for their health departments.”

The story was picked up all over the place. “Houston Set to Replace Chicago as 3rd-Largest US City By 2025” read a Huffington Post headline, adding that the Windy City was about to “blow over.” Network TV affiliates here and in Chicago ran with the story on their websites, as did the dailies.

There was just one problem. “I’m not sure where Reuters got this information,” says Jankowski. “And I haven’t found anyone who can duplicate it. And the agencies who do forecasting like this tend to be demographers and planning agencies, not health departments.”

Instead, Jankowski points to regional organizations in Houston and Chicago that contradict the claim: the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Houston-Galveston Area Council, both of which forecast population. By the year 2040, CMAP expects Chicago’s population to reach 3,092,262, while HGAC projects Houston’s to reach 2,939,131. In short, 25 years from now, our population will still be 150,000 short of Chicago’s. And these aren’t frivolous projections: “Long-term capital spending plans and billions of dollars of expenditures will be based off those organizations’ numbers,” says Jankowski, “so it behooves them to be accurate.”

Today, Chicago’s population exceeds Houston’s by more than 482,000 residents. “It will take years before Houston closes that gap,” says Jankowski. Many, many years. Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, for us to overtake them, “the city of Chicago would have to cease all growth, which is highly unlikely, and Houston would have to boom as it has over the past five years, which is also unlikely,” he adds. “Even then, we wouldn’t catch Chicago for another decade and a half.”

Jankowski doesn’t blame Reuters for starting the hype, noting that he’s often heard talk of Houston toppling Chicago during his tenure at the GHP. “When I’ve tried to correct people, they’ve basically ignored me,” he says. “I make my living with data, and I try to put forth the most accurate information possible, so this stuff just gets under my skin.”

Ours, too, as we just ordered our “Suck it, Second City!” T-shirts. 

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