A Decade of Development
U.S. Census data shows Knox County grew by more than 10 percent since 2010, and the City of Knoxville had its biggest jump in 50 years.
by jesse fox mayshark • August 13, 2021
The population of Knox County's census tract 1, which covers downtown, grew by 81 percent since 2010.
Driven by downtown revitalization and an apartment boom, the City of Knoxville grew by 11,866 people between 2010 and 2020 — the biggest increase since the 1960s.
The Hardin Valley area accounted for 10 percent of the county's total growth.
Knox County as a whole grew by 46,745 residents, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau, a 10.81 percent increase that brings the total county population to 478,971.
It was a slightly smaller countywide jump than in the previous decade, which added 50,194 people for a 13 percent gain. But it marks the county’s third straight decade of double-digit percentage growth.
“People are finding out what we have known for a long time: Knox County is a great place to live, work and raise a family,” County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said in a statement Thursday.
The Census data follows an initial release earlier this year of state-level results, which showed that Tennessee grew by 8.9 percent to a total population of 6.9 million. The county, city and Census tract totals released yesterday will be used to draw new boundaries for local, state and federal legislative districts.
But arguably the biggest local news in the numbers was the growth in the city-limits population, to a total of 190,740. Although the city accounted for just 25 percent of the county’s total growth, that’s the highest proportion in decades.
Downtown Looks Up
With most existing city neighborhoods developed by the early 1960s, residential growth in Knox County through the second half of the 20th century largely occurred in the expanding suburbs, as farmland was turned into subdivisions.
The city’s primary mechanism for growth in those years was annexation, with the biggest jump occurring between 1960 — when the city population was 111,827 — and 1970, when it reached 174,587. During that decade, the city annexed Fountain City, Bearden and other inner-ring suburban areas.
But since 1970, the city’s population has been relatively flat — until now. Here are the city population figures for the succeeding Censuses: 175,045 (1980), 169,761 (1990), 173,890 (2000), and 178,874 (2010).
Meanwhile, growth outside the city continued at a steady pace, with the total county population rising from 276,293 in 1970 to 432,226 in 2010. Among other things, that means the city has made up a decreasing share of the total county population. In 1970, 63 percent of Knox County residents lived inside city limits. In 2020, that proportion was 40 percent.
Succeeding city mayoral administrations starting at the turn of this century began to move away from annexation — which in any case has become legally difficult with changes in state law — and emphasize redevelopment of blighted industrial and commercial properties, particularly in and around downtown.
The effect is noticeable in tract-level Census data. The core of downtown makes up the county’s Census Tract 1, from the Tennessee River to West Magnolia Avenue between 11th Street and Central Street.
In 2010, well into the wave of redevelopment that turned edifices like the Emporium and the Commerce Building into apartments and condominiums, Tract 1 had a residential population of 1,605. In 2020, after an explosion of new apartment construction, it grew by 81 percent to 2,907. That increase of 1,302 new residents accounts for 11 percent of the city’s total population growth over the past decade.
"The Census count verifies what we already knew — that Knoxville is a vibrant, exciting city on the move,” Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said in a statement. “This is our time. We're growing with high-quality and equitable housing. We're seeing well-planned mixed-use private investment citywide. Projects valued at $697 million were issued City building permits in 2020.
"Best of all, we're trending in the right direction. Our growth rate this past decade is more than twice that from 2000 to 2010."
Knoxville’s growth kept it comfortably ahead of sibling city Chattanooga, which has undergone its own downtown metamorphosis over the past 30 years. The River City added another 13,425 residents since 2010, for an 8.01 percent growth rate — faster than Knoxville’s 6.63 percent. Chattanooga now has a population of 181,099.
The state’s two largest municipalities saw different trajectories over the past decade, with the result that Nashville is now Tennessee’s largest city. Its 689,447 residents outnumber the city-limits population of Memphis, at 633,104. And where Memphis lost nearly 14,000 residents, Nashville added 88,225.
West Knox Boom
Shelby County, home to Memphis, is still by far the state’s largest county, with a population of 929,744. But it added a bare 2,100 new residents over the past decade, a growth rate that rounds most closely to zero. Nashville’s Davidson County meanwhile grew by 14 percent, to a total of 715,884.
Knox County’s position as the third-largest county won’t be threatened in the next decade, at least. Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga, has a total population of 366,207, more than 110,000 fewer than Knox. It may even be in danger of being surpassed by fast-growing Rutherford County, the state’s fifth-largest.
Southeast of Nashville, home to Murfreesboro, Rutherford has rocketed from a population of 182,023 in 2000 to 341,486 in 2020. Its 30 percent growth rate was the third-highest in the state.
Knox County’s growth has concentrated most heavily in its western areas, from Concord to Hardin Valley and Karns. The Town of Farragut, the county’s other incorporated entity, continued its steady growth, adding nearly 3,000 residents for a total of 23,506. It is now the 30th-largest city or town in the state.
But the biggest jumps came in and around Hardin Valley, across the interstate from Farragut. The green rolling hills that were once mostly farms are now packed with subdivisions. The Census tracts that make up the heart of Hardin Valley, from Yarnell Road to the Clinch River, grew from a combined population of 6,560 in 2010 to 11,101 in 2020. That accounted for 10 percent of the total growth in the county. (And many traffic complaints to go with it.)
Tim Kuhn, director of the Tennessee State Data Center at the University of Tennessee, said it will be a while before it is clear to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic affected last year’s Census count. After each Census, there is a “post-enumeration survey” to check its numbers. In 2010, Kuhn said, Tennessee’s showed 94.3 percent accuracy, considered a good result.
“There are always undercounts and overcounts in every Census,” he said. “There is some concern about how COVID may have impacted the counts, there's some concern about how some of the new procedures to inject statistical noise into the data could affect the counts. But that remains to be seen.”