Evanston prides itself on being a welcoming community and a desirable place to live. But population trends raise doubts about those claims.


The chart above shows that early last century people thought Evanston was very desirable, and whatever doubts some existing residents may have had about the influx, on balance the city welcomed, or at least accommodated, growth here that was much faster than the national average.

From 19,259 in 1900, Evanston’s population rose to 73,641 in 1950.

But after 1960 the story changed. Evanston’s population peaked at just under 79,808 in 1970, then fell to a low of 73,233 in 1990. It has only slowly crept back to an estimated 74,895 last year.

Meanwhile the nation’s population has continued to grow steadly, so much so that Evanston now lags the nation for total growth since 1900.

The city’s equity and empowerment coordinator, Pat Efiom, holding a proposed welcome sign at a City Council committee meeting last August.

Evanston has officially proclaimed itself a “welcoming city” — even for illegal immigrants.

And the city routinely touts studies that claim Evanston is a desirable place to live.

But growth sufficient to confirm that both those claims are true isn’t happening.

Developers propose new housing — whether high-rises downtown or low- to mid-rise developments in the neighborhoods — and opponents shout their opposition. Some projects get downsized. Others are killed completely.

Meanwhile a lack of housing supply and a lack of undeveloped land push up prices, making the community less desirable — except for those for whom money is no object.

The net result is that Evanston can “welcome” a smaller share of the nation’s population each year.

Can Evanston can be both desirable and welcoming without accommodating a fair share of the nation’s growing population?

What do you think? How much growth does Evanston need to be both welcoming and desirable?

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Population

    Knowing that the only way Evanston can expand its population is by going up, and there is resistance to going up, the population of Evanston will fluctuate between 72-78,000 people.

    Does Evanston have the infrastructure to handle 85,000 people?  I doubt it.  It’s not an issue of welcoming.  It is an issue of capacity.

    1. Infrastructure

      Infrastructure needs — when they exist — are a solvable problem through impact fees and similar measures. And the vast majority of recent new development projects in Evanston have turned out to NOT need significant new infrastructure.

      But claiming we lack the infrastructure may feel better that just admitting that we’re not welcoming newcomers.

      — Bill

  2. Still desirable – not sustainable
    We are part of the state of Illinois which has record numbers of people leaving every day. I am sure that some of those people are from Evanston. Working families can still afford the cost of housing in Evanston and there are many aspects of Evanston that make it a desirable city to live in. However, once you add the consistent property tax increases to the family budget coupled with the lack of income increases year after year, people who desire to remain in Evanston no longer can sustain the expense to stay. Nothing being reported from the city or state level seems to indicate that this is a major concern for our leaders so whoever is keeping the measurement on this chart can plan on that red line taking a plunge downward over the next few years.

    1. It’s not just the weather

      A common excuse for the lackluster population growth in Illinois is the weather. 

      However in mid December, the US Census Bureau released their annual state by state population report and Illinois lost population for the 4th year in a row. From July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017, Illinois lost over 30,000 people, net, and EVERY OTHER contiguous state gained population. Starting clockwise from the north, that includes Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Iowa all GAINED population yet Illinois LOST population.

      On July 1, 2010 the Census Bureau indicated that the population in Illinois was 12,831,565. And on July 1, 2017 population fell to 12,802,023, or a decline of 0.23%.

      How can that be? Why is this happening?

      I e-mailed all of our state level representatives on 12/20/2017 and haven’t heard back from anyone.

      The population decline we’re experiencing in Illinois is a major state-wide problem; it’s not just an Evanston issue.

      With the upcoming primaries and elections in 2018, I’m listening closely for any of the candidates to acknowledge this issue, explain their understanding of the reasons for this problem and their solutions.

    2. Taxes!
      For someone who earns $100k+ a year – the recent tax increases have my family rethinking whether we can stay in Evanston. The new people who have moved into my neighborhood are young double income professionals driving imported cars (and they are really boring). I couldn’t afford to move here like we did 20 years ago.

      1. You are above average

        The median household income in Evanston is about $70,000. If you earn $100k+, you are doing very well financially relative to the majority of Evanstonians.

    3. 16 Months and Counting

      We moved here in 1992, since then our property taxes and the additional costs and fees to live in Evanston have significantly outpaced inflation and income. Our last child graduates in 2019, and we’re outta here. The cost of living in Evanston greatly exceed the value we receive from it. (Before someone gets snarky, neither child went to ETHS, so we’re supporting the schools and not using them.)

  3. Misinterpretation
    “The chart above [does not necessarily show}] that early last century people thought Evanston was very desirable” while “after 1960 the story changed.” Unlike the U.S. as a whole, Evanston does not have as much empty space to sprawl into to accommodate growth as have high growth cities in the South and West. Evanston has finite borders and while building at greater densities could increase population growth, once most of the “free space” has been developed that growth is going to taper off. To make this point, one would need to compare Evanston with other mature, first ring suburbs of large cities. For instance, how does Evanston’s growth compare to that of Cambridge, MA; Oakland, CA; Long Beach or Santa Monica, CA; Newark or Jersey City, NJ; etc. This chart is comparing apples to oranges and resulting a flawed interpretation.

    The point made later in the piece isn’t based on the chart and is therefore more accurate. The proof Evanston is “a desirable place to live” is to be found in its property values. If Evanston wants to be a “welcoming” city both racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically it needs to take action to counteract the increase of prices to ensure Evanston doesn’t simply become another rich-only enclave on the North Shore. One way of doing that is by approving greater densities, and not only in the city’s downtown area and not only for luxury condos. As liberal economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman wrote in “Why Can’t We Get Cities Right?” (New York Times, Sept. 4, 2017, https://goo.gl/QtWDc7), cities “should encourage construction that takes advantage of the most effective mass transit technology yet devised: the elevator.” That should be popular in Evanston,and practical.

    1. No misinterpretation

      Hi Chris,

      The chart makes a simple point. We have all but stopped growing our population, while the nation continues to grow. The nation’s boundaries haven’t changed. Neither have Evanston’s.

      As you point out yourself in your second paragraph, there is no physical reason Evanston can’t increase its population by growing up rather than out.

      You mention Cambridge, Massachusetts. It has increased its population from 95,322 in 1980 to 110,651 in 2016. That’s an increase of 16 percent. Over the same period Evanston’s population has increased only 1.6 percent.

      I don’t think most people would consider the other communities you mention very similar to Evanston — so I’ll let you look up the data for them yourself.

      — Bill

  4. Undeveloped land
    I agree with your point that the prevasive push back from the public and city officials which often arises when developers want to build new residential units, or someone want to start a business challenges the credibility of the “All people are welcome” statement.

    I do not think it is reasonable to compare the City of Evanston, which has had nearly all of its land developed many decades ago, to the US which has whole lot of undeveloped land. Hasn’t much of the US growth in the past 50 years occurred in outer ring suburbs where farmland was converted to residential subdivisions? A better comparison would be to restrict the population growth to cities which have had their land developed by 1960 so their growth would have had to be from increasing density rather than filling in empty space.

    Also people move for lifestyle reasons such as retirement, and for jobs. The Chicago region has not been much of a magnet for either one of those over the past 10 years compared to some other metropolitan areas that are booming.

    An interesting question is what do people have in mind when they express sentiments about Evanston being a welcoming City?

  5. Data not basis for conclusion

    There is no logical basis to jump to the headline or conclusion that this article jumps to from looking at the population data. None. Chicago and the Chicagoland area has been losing significant population over the last few years. A suburb comparable to us, Oak Park, has slightly declined in population.

    1. Bucking the trend

      Dear Differing,

      Your implication that Evanston could not possibly be expected to grow because of the general malaise of the metro region is without merit.

      Consider, for example, Naperville, which has increased in population from 42,300 in 1980 to 147,122 in 2016.

      It’s not where I’d want to live — but clearly a lot of people have chosen to move there.

      The fact that some communities in the area are losing population does not preclude growth in others — if people see them as being welcoming and desirable.

      And if we can’t buck the regional trend, that’s a strong indication that we aren’t nearly as desirable as we think we are — or that we aren’t sufficiently welcoming.

      — Bill

      1. Evanston to Chicago is a better comparison

        Hey Bill — appreciate the data. I do think a more telling chart would be comparing Evanston population growth with that of Chicago or the Chicago metro area though. Agreed that certain communities can “buck the trend” but the fact that Chicago has lost lot of population is a huge component to Evanston’s flat population growth. People from across the country are going to choose to come to the Chicago region for jobs, etc. and only THEN do they potentially choose to live in Evanston. They don’t choose Evanston in a vacuum and then find a job. They’re not looking at moving to Evanston or Cambridge — those cities aren’t competitors. Boston has had HUGE business success and growth as of late.

        Looking at Chicago’s population size:

        1920: 2,701,705 23.6%

        1930: 3,376,438 25.0%
        1940: 3,396,808 0.6%
        1950: 3,620,962 6.6%
        1960: 3,550,404 −1.9%
        1970: 3,366,957 −5.2%
        1980: 3,005,072 −10.7%
        1990: 2,783,726 −7.4%
        2000: 2,896,016 4.0%
        2010: 2,695,598 −6.9%

        So, Chicago is below where it was in 1920! I guess that means Chicago is TRULY undersirable and unwelcoming. It’s trend is a fairly steady decline in the last 40 years. .Evanston, by comparison, is up significantly since 1920 at least. I think comparing Evanston to Chicago and other Chicago suburbs is a more reasonable comparison to draw conclusions rather than comparing Evanston to the US as a whole. Certain regions and metro areas of the US are responsible for a lot of the population growth and it’s no “fault” or Evanston or indicative of an unwelcoming place in my opinion when Chicago/IL has a broader trend that has a direct impact to Evanston.

        1. Our competition

          Hi Eric,

          I agree with you that the regional picture creates a headwind that Evanston must face.

          But Evanston also has great draws which most of our competitors lack — the university, the location on the lake, and on and on.

          So to say that we should be satisfied to fall far below the national rate of growth because of the regional picture is to make excuses for our own poor performance.

          Most of us believe we’ve got a good thing here. We should be willing to take reasonable steps to let a manageable number of additional people share in that good life.

          That, I think, needs to be part of the discussion when we’re talking about a range of issues — whether it’s a new high-rise downtown or letting people rent coach houses to non-family members.

          That frame of reference doesn’t answer all the questions — but it should be one of the factors informing our judgments.

          If we aren’t trying to grow the city’s population, I would argue, we aren’t really being fully welcoming.

          — Bill

          1. Wanting growth, but fearing change
            In our country, and others, there are always people who are afraid of having new people move in. Part of it is economic, but I think a bigger part of it is fear of how the new arrivals will change the culture. IMO, there are some Evanston residents and city council members who have a similar fear of demographic changes in our city. That would explain how describing a proposal to build an apartment building as “the epitome of white supremacy”. At that point they are not talking about architecture or traffic impact.

            There are neighborhoods in Chicago which were nice middle class areas 25 years ago and have changed substantially as people with more money have moved in, sometimes purchased adjacent lots, and tore down the existing houses to build new bigger houses. North Center is an example. So the fear of change is not without reason.

            As you said, most of us feel we have a good thing here. Some like it so much they will oppose any risk of changing it. Big new buildings are going to draw opposition. It is up to the voters to choose if they want people who accept that the city will change or the xenophobes who what to try to preserve the city under a glass case. I do not see the conflict between these groups ever going away.

  6. Growth
    Metro Seattle is adding density it works fine. Evanston already has public transport. What was once two stories becomes six story.

  7. Population Decline Dynamics

    I am not convinced that our decline in growth means that we are not a welcoming city.  We need to understand the other dynamics that go into our town’s population decline.

    For example, let’s see what a decrease in average household size has done to affect our growth rate.  Larger families are shrinking.  My own children, all three born in the “echo boomer” age cohort have moved out of town and/or out of state.  They have relocated where they have found better employment opportunties and affordable housing.  Many of their friends who all went through Evanston schools together no longer live in our town.

    This exodus of people has not been replenished by new, growing households.  Inasmuch as our real estate market continues to exhibit strong demand for housing at all price points, this certainly doesn’t support that we are not desirable, or welcoming.

    I am assuming that we may not replace many of these large households for a long time.  Any future growth will have to come from developing new housing whether in higher density buildings, or, redevelopment of underused sites.

    1. Household size

      Hi Al,

      Thanks for your comment. But the decrease in average household size is not a phenomenon limited to Evanston. It’s happening across the country.

      Hope to do a story about it sometime soon.

      — Bill

  8. Property values a better indicator

    This is silly, and it is a misinterpretation. The whole premise of this piece is that somehow the desirability of the city can be determined based on a comparison of the population growth of Evanston to the population growth of the United States. If the growth in Evanston is less than the overall growth, we’re less desirable. But you fail to take into account the fact that Evanston is a land-locked suburb. That’s different than Naperville, for instance, where much of its growth since 1980 can be attributed to new development on new land. Evanston could build “up,” but maybe condos in the sky aren’t as desirable as single-family homes. That doesn’t mean the homes we do have aren’t desirable.

    If you want to look at desirability, property values would be a better indicator. If people are willing to pay top dollar for homes in our City, that’s an indication of desirability.

  9. Outstanding Article

    Hi Bill –

    Thank you for the outstanding reporting you have done on affordable housing, development, and the facts behind the agendas.  Your endeavors on the subject are deserving of professional recognition.  Thank you for dedication and service to Evanston.

Leave a comment
The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *