Philly’s Population Is Finally Growing Again — but Jobs Aren’t

The latest figures project a six-figure gain in residents by 2035, but just 40,000 new jobs. What can be done?

Imagine: 100,000 more Philadelphians over the next 20 years.

The last time the city posted that kind of gain was from 1930 to 1950, the year our population peaked at a little north of 2 million. No wonder folks were in a celebratory mood at the Center for Architecture last night, when the City Planning Commission formally released its two latest district plans, which it dubbed the “Visions for Our Metropolitan Center.”

Covering greater Center City and University City, that “metropolitan center” remains the city’s economic engine: According to the CPC, 51 percent of all jobs in the city are located there. So are a growing number of its residents: Center City alone grew by 17,000 people in the last decade, and the CPC projects a further rise of 20,000 by 2035.

All of those new residents are going to need to work somewhere — if they’re lucky, says the commission, up to 40,000 of them will find employment inside the city.

That’s not too bad, but it’s also not enough for a city with a massive jobs hole to refill. Over the previous four decades, as the city’s population fell, those who remained increasingly found work outside the city: While Philadelphia lost a fifth of its residents between 1970 and 2012, it lost a quarter of its jobs.

It didn’t have to be this way: Our East Coast peer cities, most of which also lost population after the 1960s, all gained jobs in that same time span. This discrepancy caught the attention of Center City District president and CEO Paul Levy, who noted it in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed. The city’s tax structure, which relies on “taxing what moves,” as he put it, doesn’t help matters any.

While it’s encouraging that, according to Census Bureau estimates, the city’s population rose by 1.4 percent from 2010 to 2012, to 1,547,607, Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative figures show the number of jobs rising only 0.9 percent, from 652,700 in the post-crash year of 2009 to 659,200 in 2011.

If we take the population and employment figures for those end years above and add the CPC’s projected 2035 figures to them, population growth will continue to outpace job growth. And though the gap between them won’t be quite as large as it has been, it means the city will still be squandering one of its greatest assets: jobs within easy reach of residents on foot, by bike or via mass transit. And while University City’s big employers — its universities and hospitals, or “eds and meds” — have done more than their part to preserve this asset, they can’t do it all by themselves. Job growth within the traditional city core has been relatively weak during this same time period, according to Center City District figures, and except for the Navy Yard, the rest of the city hasn’t been picking up the slack.

Of course, the city of Philadelphia is just one part of a sprawling metropolitan region, and there are several major suburban job centers where city residents work. But many of the city residents who need that work the most don’t own cars, and getting to those centers on mass transit, while possible, is time-consuming and often requires traveling by bus on car-clogged highways — hardly an ideal solution.

How can we fix this? Levy is certainly right when he suggests that the city switch from taxing what moves to taxing what doesn’t: property. But that alone may not be enough, as long as the city keeps in place a Byzantine licensing and permitting regime that causes some would-be new business owners to burn through their seed money before they even open their doors. Maybe the CPC could add reshaping City Hall to its district planning agenda.