Past their prime

According to 2003 estimates from the Census Bureau, 126 of the state’s 351 communities (shaded on the larger map below) are now short of their population peaks. In some cases, such as Cohasset, Natick, and Woburn, the high-water mark came in 2002, and the population drops have been tiny. But the cities of Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, New Bedford, and North Adams hit their peaks in 1940 or before, and they’ve collectively lost some 70,000 people since then.

Boston topped out in 1950 with 801,000 people; now it’s down to 582,000. Suffolk County, which includes Boston, has dropped from 15,197 people per square mile in 1950 to 11,537 in 2003.At the same time, the growth of suburbs and exurbs meant that the population density in the state as a whole rose from 598 people per square mile in 1950 to 821 in 2003. (Only New Jersey and Rhode Island were more crowded.)

The second map shows that similar patterns hold across New England and eastern New York.Populations have crested in the most urban counties (in and around Boston and New York City), the Northeast’s version of wilderness (northern Maine and New Hampshire), and a couple of areas where manufacturing and maritime activities have been replaced by tourism-based economies (the Berkshires, Newport). All other counties are still experiencing at least minimal population growth.

Long after Suffolk County reached its peak, adjoining Middlesex and Norfolk Counties continued to grow —right up until 2003, when Census Bureau estimates knocked down their total by about 1,200 people. In 1950, these three counties accounted for 49 percent of the state’s population, while the outermost reaches of the Boston metropolitan area (Bristol, Essex, Plymouth, and Worcester counties, plus the Cape and Islands) accounted for 37 percent. In 2003, the two areas were almost exactly equal, each accounting for 43.6 percent of the state’s population. That may be good news for suburban and exurban voters wanting to throw more weight around in Massachusetts politics.

Meet the Author