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Arkansas losing rural population; growth seen in smaller, suburban communities

A map shows growth rates in four central Arkansas counties over the past 30 years.
A map shows growth rates in four central Arkansas counties over the past 30 years.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show central Arkansas’ population growth is concentrating in suburban and lower-density areas, while rural areas are suffering losses. That’s according to analysis in the 2021 Demographic Review and Outlook report from Metroplan, central Arkansas’ regional planning agency.

The report shows the central Arkansas region is growing at a slower pace than the U.S. average, but slightly faster than Arkansas as a whole. Jonathan Lupton, senior planner for publications with Metroplan, says steady growth is to be expected in the central Arkansas area.

“Our economy is sort of diverse. We’re a state capitol region and so we sort of serve as a service city for a lot of the countryside around us… and so we do have a track record of steady growth,” Lupton said. “If you’re going to invest in an area, this is an area that will not give you a lot of shock. You might not see as much growth as you’d like, but you can pretty much count on there being some growth.”

The central Arkansas region grew by about 48,000 new residents since 2010, according to the report. Lupton says population growth was almost exclusively centered around the state’s largest metropolitan areas.

“The northwest Arkansas region and the Little Rock regions both grew, and they accounted for all of the population growth in the state in any functional sense. There may have been local exceptions, but as a whole, rural Arkansas definitely lost population, down 57,000,” Lupton said. “Had we not had population growth in Little Rock and in the northwest Arkansas area, the state would not have grown at all.”

Despite losses in rural areas, Arkansas’ population grew by 3.3% in the past decade. Lupton says urban areas in the state could also start feeling the effects of a declining rural population.

“In a lot of cases, the rural people come to the city… and that’s where we pick up a lot of our youngsters in the workforce. They migrate in from rural counties because job prospects are better here. So you have to ask yourself, if the rural population is declining as a whole, then who’s going to be migrating in? And it’s only a guess, but in years to come we’re going to see fewer rural people moving to our area simply because there will be fewer rural people,” Lupton said.

Lupton says fewer people migrate to Arkansas from out-of-state and internationally, which could lead to stagnating population growth in the future.

Some of the fastest growing parts of central Arkansas are smaller “satellite” communities, like Ward, Austin and Vilonia. Despite that, Lupton says larger urban areas continue to be the centers of population growth in the region.

“The three largest cities account for 46%, that’s almost half of our population. That’s Little Rock, North Little Rock and Conway, and they have about 70% of the region’s jobs,” Lupton said. “Satellite communities of today will shift to a new one tomorrow because an area will reach a certain point, and then something will happen that will start to slow the growth down, and someplace else will start growing fast.”

Saline County saw the most growth in the region in the last decade, adding about 16,000 people. Northwest Arkansas saw the highest growth in the state, adding about 106,600 new residents.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.