Census Data & Places 2040: The future of growth in Lancaster County

Hourglass Lancaster

This article ran in the Summer 2021 issue of Hourglass Quarterly. View the full publication here. 

2020 census data for Lancaster County was released in August. The numbers show the county’s population grew to 552,984, a 6.5% increase over the last 10 years. That’s the slowest pace of growth here since the 1910s. And yet Lancaster is the seventh-fastest growing of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, officially becoming a metropolitan area.

How does this growth align with Places2040, Lancaster County’s comprehensive plan?

Census data showed that growth is far from evenly spread within the county. The fastest growing among municipalities were suburban townships: Pequea (18.9%), Penn (16.2%), Lancaster (15.4%) and Manheim (15.3%). Meanwhile, Lancaster city lost 1,283 people since 2010, or 2.2% of its total population. Millersville lost 265 people, or 3.2% of its population, and Columbia lost 193 people, or 1.9%.

This might seem in conflict with Places2040’s smart growth strategy, developed by the Lancaster County Planning Commission in 2018, which encourages local officials to steer new, denser construction to Urban Growth Areas that already have access to needed public infrastructure like sewer, water, electricity and roads—reducing sprawl and maintaining farmland and open spaces. But Scott Standish, Executive Director of the Planning Commission, says on closer examination, the plan is on track.

“We’ve been successful in where we grow, but not how we grow,” said Standish.

Preliminary analysis by the Planning Commission shows that the majority of all new housing units and population growth in the last 10 years have been in the designated urban growth areas, likely even higher than the Places2040 goal of 85%.

Where we’re missing the target is in density. “Our goal is 7.5 units/acre in the designated growth areas,” said Standish, “but we’re still seeing a significant number of large single family lots. We need to grow up instead of out, and invest in developing vacant, underutilized land in targeted growth areas.” Density is especially important because our urban growth areas only have 24,000 acres of vacant buildable land remaining—which we’re consuming at the rate of about 1,000 acres per year.

Other points of interest from the Census Data:

  • In Places2040, the Planning Commission predicted Lancaster County would see our population increase by about 100,000 people between 2015 and 2040. But based on our slowing population growth we “might not get there,” according to Standish.
  • Where is our population growth coming from? There is a myth in the county that growth is coming from migration, but 79% of our growth in Lancaster County over the past decade has been internal.

“Overall, the efforts of a countywide vision of where to develop growth has been successful,” said Standish.

The Lancaster County Planning Commission plans to revisit the comprehensive plan every 5 years to make adjustments. This fall Places2040 is hosting a series of implementation workshops around the county called “Creating Great Places” focused on housing choice and placemaking. The Places2040 Summit will be held March 31, 2022.

Hourglass is proud is be one of the “Partners for Place” for Places2040.