Knoxville By the (Census) Numbers

Quick takes on what the new statistics show about the Knoxville area

Working the Numbers

MPC Information and Research Manager Terry Gilhula and others, like city Urban Growth Manager Rick Emmett, have not allowed themselves much time for contemplating the census; there's an urgent matter at hand, city and county redistricting. Gilhula notes that county budget cutbacks have brought some reorganization; the MPC no longer employs a full-time librarian. (Gretchen Beal, now retired, was a big help with previous Metro Pulse stories about the census; Gilhula made time to help us with some of these figures.) Right now, speculating about what it all means for Knoxville and its future takes a back seat to looking at the numbers to decide, within the ever-shifting populace, where and for whom our citizens can vote.

Emmett hasn't studied the spreadsheets in detail, but has noticed a few things right away. "What jumped out at me was that the Second District lost about a thousand, if you can believe that," he says. The Second District is basically old suburban West Knoxville, including Sequoyah Hills and West Hills, more or less the Greater Bearden area. Part of it might be explained by the fact that UT summarily closed some large residential apartments on Sutherland Avenue, permanently, to replace them with intramural athletic fields. But Emmett's theory is that a generation of families shed their children between 2000 and 2010. Those just getting started on raising families might choose to live in a less expensive neighborhood like the Third District, on the northwest side of town—areas like Norwood and Pleasant Ridge between Middlebrook and Clinton Highway—which seems to have picked up 4-5,000 new residents.

"Frankly, I thought the Sixth District would have grown," Emmett says, due to the population boom in what is geographically a very small part of it called Downtown; he mentions the 100 block of Gay Street, developed for residences mostly since 2000, which has been described as the highest-density block in town. But that district also includes Mechanicsville and most of East Knoxville, the two historically black parts of town. The Sixth District actually lost a few hundred. Minorities, Emmett acknowledges, are chronically underreported in the census. He also wants to check to see whether the major downtown residential developments, like the JFG building and Sterchi Lofts got fully counted. In 2000, some downtown residents complained that they never heard from the U.S. Census Bureau, and were ostensibly left out of that decade's tally.


Knox County's 13 percent growth is not evenly distributed. As maps and personal observation attest, much of Knox County, allegedly one of Tennessee's four urban counties, is still very rural, especially on the east and deep south of it. Growth has come mostly to the north and west. Tiny Farragut, now adorned for the first time with a statue of its namesake, grew by almost 3,000 citizens in the last decade, close to 17 percent. But you could still seat all of Farragut in Thompson-Boling Arena, with room left over for most of Maynardville. It's still a small town, and small changes register large in percentage.

Median Age

Every 10 years, demographers calculate the median age for communities. It's a typical pattern nationwide for citizens of an urban area to be younger than rural residents, on average, and Knoxville is always younger than Knox County. In the last 10 years, the gap widened. Knox County is aging, but Knoxville proper is getting younger, if only by a few months. The median Knoxvillian is 32.7; if you were born before November 1978, you're among the older half of Knoxvillians. The median Knox Countian is a little bit older, at 37.2, nearer the American average. The city resident is on average about four and a half years younger than the county resident—who's a little younger than those of the more rural counties of the metro area, like Loudon, where the average resident is well past 40. Farragut's median resident is also past 40.

That result may reflect the new appeal of the center city to the young, especially the trend of young couples moving into old neighborhoods. Not too long ago, Fourth and Gill, to take one of the most dramatic examples, was heavily occupied, when it was occupied at all, by elderly widows. Today the same neighborhood is best known for young couples, many of whom have children.

Minority Population

The 2010 census includes a small surprise. Knoxville's now officially 17.1 percent black, 0.9 percent higher than in 2000. One in six Knoxvillians, or slightly more than that, is black. Knox County as a whole considerably lower, at about 8.8 percent.

There is, of course, a significant increase in Hispanic population—but then again, it's probably not as high as it was four or five years ago, before the recession. Professor Stephanie Bohon, a UT demographer who has been watching Hispanic migration closely, suggests that the local Hispanic population probably peaked around 2007, but remains a strong and permanent factor in Knoxville's demographics. She says Knoxville has developed a reputation as an appealing place for working families to live, as far away as Los Angeles, a refuge from traffic, pollution, higher living costs, and gang pressures.

Knoxville's city-limits population of Hispanics, according to the 2010 census, is 8,206, or about 4.6 percent of Knoxvillians. It's almost universally assumed that true Latino populations are underreported, but it's clear the Latino share of Knoxville is still much lower than that of the United States as a whole. As is the case with some other minorities, the proportion of Latinos declines somewhat at the county (3.5 percent) and MSA (3.4 percent) level.

Asians buck the trend; their frequency in Knox County (1.9 percent) is slightly higher than in the city proper, and highest of all in the town of Farragut, where people of Asian background account for 5.4 percent of the population. Farragut is home to almost three times as many Asians as blacks. Almost 14 percent of the Asians who live in Knox County live in Farragut.


The census bureau's Community Survey, based on sampling, reports that 8,248 Knoxvillians are immigrants from other countries—just under 5 percent of the total population—and that almost a third of Knoxvillians were born in a state other than Tennessee. That survey is interesting, but full of oddities. One of Knoxville's culturally most conspicuous ethnic minorities are Greeks, who sustain a prominent church, and every year throw one of the city's most popular ethnic festivals. Everybody knows a longtime Knoxvillian with a Greek last name. But according to the census's Community Survey, only about 373 people of Greek ancestry live here. By comparison, the Survey claims there are actually more people of French-Canadian heritage in Knoxville, almost three times as many whose ancestors were Russian, and almost four times as many people of Lithuanian heritage, and more than 10 times as many Poles. Maybe it's time for us to consider a pierogi and vodka festival.

UT Professor Patricia Davis-Wiley, who studies English-language learning, offers some more precise figures, with new data that suggests the ethnic background of the approximately 1,750 students who learn English as a second language in Knox County Schools. Almost two-thirds—61 percent—are Spanish speakers, which is no surprise, followed at a distance by Arabic speakers, at 6 percent. But the rest are divided between about 33 other languages from around the globe, from Turkish (2 percent) to Chinese (3 percent) to Russian (1.5 percent), to Vietnamese (2.5 percent), with several students representing languages many of us have never heard of: Karh, Pohnpeian, Grebo, Nuer.

State Population Numbers

On the state level, Tennessee is now home to almost 6.5 million people. Its growth rate of 11.5 percent is a little faster than the national average. Tennessee's population growth has been slow compared to that of most Southern states, but much faster than the growth in almost all the states of the Northeast and Midwest.

Tennessee's slightly whiter than America as a whole—but also slightly blacker. What we lack are Asians, and, in spite of major growth, Hispanics. Tennessee's Hispanic population has grown by 134.2 percent in the last 10 years. That's an impressive rate, much higher than the national average. But our proportion of Hispanics is still very low—4.6 percent—hardly more than a quarter of the national figure. North Carolina and Georgia report much faster rates of Hispanic growth, but Kentucky and Mississippi show slower growth in that demographic.

On a census map of minority proportion, despite the great migrations of blacks to the North, the North looks as white as it did in 1861. And Tennessee seems to belong more to the North, and the Midwest, than to the South.

How Dense Are We?

As a city, Knoxville in 2010 is bigger than it ever has been, if only slightly. It probably seemed more crowded, more urban, maybe even more metropolitan, a century ago. For most of the last century, as Knoxville has grown, it has diffused. Urban studies have shown that it's not just sheer population of a city that breeds urban amenities, a diversity of people, and a diversity of shopping and transportation options. More important is density. For a city, Knoxville is not very dense, in fact only about one-quarter as dense as it was in 1900.

Expressed in the census as the number of people per square mile, density is an interesting and sometimes paradoxical issue. Americans like to think of Tennessee as inherently "country," and judging by what we advertise, Tennesseans are more than happy to oblige. But real-world Tennessee is home to about 154 people per square mile, and nearly twice as densely populated as America as a whole. Of course, some of that's easy to explain by the totality of what goes into that calculation. Some of America's large expanses are in the desert West or in chilly Alaska, which have very low densities.

Still, the state has more people per square mile than many states we're used to comparing ourselves with: Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas. Most Northern states are still more populous, but some Midwestern ones, like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, are considerably less so. Washington and Oregon, states that have become famous for urban development in recent decades, are far less populous, per square mile, than Tennessee.

Tennessee's true identity as a more densely populated state isn't particularly new or secret. In 1910, Tennessee had the 15th highest population density in America. It's actually slipped a little bit since then, to #20.

Density has been much-touted in recent years as the wave of the future. High-density is more likely to result in a diversity of urban amenities, like, say, Afghan restaurants, or dealers in rare china, Italian shoes, or Scandinavian furniture. Low-density development implies more travel time, gasoline expense, emissions, and more dependence on the fluctuations of world oil prices. UT Professor Stephanie Bohon has noted promising trends in some nearby cities. In Atlanta, once the epitome of low-density sprawl, she says, there's real evidence of people leaving the suburbs to reoccupy the once-neglected city itself.

Any city with fewer than 5,000 people per square mile is considered "low density," and like almost all Sunbelt cities, Knoxville's pretty low density. By a 2005 estimate, Knoxville supports 1,944 citizens per square mile. But it's not necessarily one of the lowest. A recent Forbes article argues that the American trend wasn't necessarily toward greater density, pointing out that some of the nation's fastest-growing cities had densities of less than 1,700, including Raleigh, N.C., in a statistical dead heat with Las Vegas as one of the nation's two fastest-growing cities.

There are no high-density cities in Tennessee, but Knoxville's well ahead of Chattanooga—and Nashville-Davidson, though the latter's in part a statistical anomaly related to the fact that Nashville is judged by its county-wide metro government. (One drawback of metro government, if you're trying to pitch your city as an urban place, is that if you're going to cast your net wide to gather in all the population of a county, you have to include all that land, too.)

The densest parts of Knoxville, no surprise, are the University and Fort Sanders area, which has long been claimed to be the most densely populated part of East Tennessee.

Beating Chattanooga

Knoxville is still larger than Chattanooga—the two ancient rivals had a population war in the mid-20th century, and there was some media anxiety a couple of years ago that Chattanooga was growing so fast it might overtake Knoxville in 2010, but even with its current, disappointing, unrecounted tally, Knoxville's still about 11,000 people ahead.

Rural Migration

Randy Gustafson, director of the Tennessee State Data Center at UT, has been studying the census mostly on the statewide level, and is most impressed with the migration of rural Tennesseans to urban areas. Eight rural counties—there's a concentration of them in West Tennessee—lost population in the last 10 years. About a third of Tennessee's smaller towns lost population, too. It's presumed that they're part of a national trend of migration to urban areas.

Gustafson is also impressed with the fluctuation of the specific population of Tennessee children. In all, 38 counties lost residents under 18, although Tennessee as a whole gained about 100,000 children. Gustafson finds it remarkable that about 71 percent of that new growth is Hispanic children. That phenomenon touches the Knoxville metro area, especially in Loudon County. "The growth of school-age population is concentrated in major metropolitan areas, Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis," he says, as young parents move to the cities, and bring the kids. It will pose a dilemma for some of Tennessee's rural counties, which are losing both their young adults and their children.

Name and Rank

In city-limits population, Knoxville gets an A for consistency. But as the country has grown, Knoxville proper slides farther in the national rankings that list cities by size. According to the website, as an incorporated city, Knoxville's currently the 134th largest city in America—just ahead of Spring Valley, Nev., and Grand Prairie, Texas. But quite a ways behind the metropolis of Sunrise Manor, Nev.

But that's still ahead of, say, Dayton, Ohio; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Tempe, Ariz. It's obvious that you can have a good time in a city with a three-digit ranking. On the same list, Chattanooga's #144. Savannah's #189. Charleston, S.C., is #219. Asheville's #386.

On the same list, Nashville, using the sleight of hand of metro government—counting the entire county as the city—charts as number 25 in the nation. Davidson County is only about 50 percent bigger than Knox County.

On other lists of metropolitan areas, Knoxville's MSA generally comes in around #75 in the nation—about the same ranking Knoxville, the city, had in the 1970s.