Does AC Factor Into Economic and Population Growth?

Air Conditioning Regional Population Growth

Pittsburgh is in a curious situation. Most people who visit the city are impressed. Many who have lived there in the past or grew up there want to go back. It’s a place everyone seems to love, but the population remains in decline.

Meanwhile Texas cities boom. Yet they don’t have nearly as much of what researchers say millennials want in terms of a place to live, mainly walkable neighborhoods, access to recreation and other amenities.

I’ve heard explanations. Among them taxes, jobs, greenfields vs. brownfields among them. But I have another explanation, at least one that may be playing a big part in the growth of cities like Dallas and the population stagnation in Pittsburgh.

Last night my air conditioner stopped working. It was a good time to look into just what this cooling mechanism is and what it could mean in terms of urban growth patterns. The short of the story is that air conditioning became affordable and widely used in the 1960s and 1970s. Cooling is also two to three times less expensive than heating.

Wikimedia Commons DouglaspperkinsI have never been quite convinced that low taxes were the main reason for growth in Texas cities. California certainly doesn’t have low taxes and it rivals or beats Texas in many economic measures. Texas and California are both places that have benefitted from economic growth and population increases from the time cooling systems became widely used until today. There’s also Phoenix, Florida and other places.

A common response is that jobs come first. People go where the jobs are. But companies locate and bring jobs where there is access to talent. And talent exists where people want to live. That should be Pittsburgh, but it doesn’t appear to be. I’ve never seen an analysis of where people want to live vs where they actually do live.

The reasons we can contribute to why one area thrives while another area flounders are many, and the factors undoubtedly complex. Aside from talent, there are economic considerations to where companies locate and bring jobs. Taxes may play a role, but I’m venturing so can energy costs. If you add up all the cooling systems vs. heating systems, the economic impact is undoubtedly significant.

This is in no way a scientific analysis. Yet I have not seen air conditioning referenced often or used primarily in explaining the growth of Southern, and in my opinion somewhat inferior, cities while those in colder climates stagnate and decline.

Perhaps, in this case, the fault is in our climate stars, not in ourselves.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at