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For the first time since before the Civil War, Detroit is not among the nation’s 20 most populous cities.

Detroit’s population was 677,116 as of last summer, a loss of 3,107 residents from the previous year, according to estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

That’s the smallest decline in decades, but it was enough to drop the city to 21st in the nation, surpassed by Seattle, Denver and El Paso, Texas.

The last time Detroit wasn’t a Top 20 city by population was the 1850 census, when it ranked 30th, according to the bureau. In 1940, it was the fourth largest city behind New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

“A lot of Detroiters really think of themselves as being in one of the country’s biggest cities, and that’s just not true anymore,” said Kevin Boyle, an author and history professor at Northwestern University, who grew up in Detroit.

“It’s just a fundamentally different place than it was a half century ago.”

The slide is a vivid reminder of shrinking clout in state and national politics and programs. At the city’s peak of 1.8 million people in 1950, it held 29 percent of the state’s population. Today, it’s less than 7 percent.

Local experts downplay the significance of rankings, saying the focus needs to be on improving quality of life and educational and employment opportunities for those who remain.

The good news is Detroit’s decline is the smallest in decades. The previous year’s population loss was 9,727. And the decline is far lower than the annual average drop of about 24,000 that Detroit saw in the 2000s.

“That’s pretty positive,” said Xuan Liu, manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. “It is a reflection of both the improvements we’ve seen in the city and the changing demographic trends. There are new jobs and more development.”

But the loss still was the largest in the country, passing Chicago’s drop of 2,890. The Midwest has lost population with the South and West gaining. The 11 fastest growing cities were in Texas, Utah, California, Arizona, Iowa, Colorado, Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina.

Metro Detroit still ranks14th among the nation’s metropolitan areas, with its population of 4.3 million in the six counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston, St. Clair and Lapeer.

Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, predicts Detroit will see a population increase in 2016, primarily because of the pace of new development and other quality of life improvements.

“We are almost out of the woods,” Metzger said.

He noted many poor residents who may want to move have fewer options because of rising housing prices in the inner-ring suburbs.

Mayor Mike Duggan said city data shows population growth this year, primarily on the city’s west and southwest sides, along with downtown and Midtown.

“We are at a real historic point,” said Duggan, who has said his success as mayor will be measured by whether he can attract residents. “I do believe in the last year we have started to grow.”

The city issued 913 permits for new construction last year, up from 806 the previous year, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. And about 1,400 formerly vacant houses are now occupied under sales by the Detroit Land Bank since May 2014, city officials said.

The fastest growing communities in Metro Detroit continued to be Lyon Township, at 18,114; Utica, 4,942; Oakland Township, 19,154; and Macomb Township, at 86,973.

Communities on the state’s west side reported the largest growth, led by Allendale Township, 22,937 and Grand Rapids, 195,097.

“It was again townships leading the charge,” Metzger said.

Lyon Township lead the area with 343 permits issued for single-family homes in 2015, according to SEMCOG.

“During the economic downturn developers couldn’t afford to build for what properties were selling for,” said Realtor James Wolfe, who sells homes in the area. “Now that the market has come back, buyers are looking for new construction.”

Macomb Township supervisor Janet Dunn said builders are developing luxury houses, subdivisions and condominiums that are attracting families from across Metro Detroit.

Dunn said most of the lots in Macomb Township that were vacant during the economic recession are now occupied.

“I only anticipate getting more and more residents ... probably putting us in the Top 3 (fastest growing towns),” Dunn said.

Other communities that lost the most population include Flint, at 98,310; Saginaw, at 49,347, and Dearborn, at 95,171.

Experts cautioned the numbers are estimates. The census uses new housing permits and demolitions, and that may not mirror Detroit’s population changes, they say. SEMCOG has done its own analysis and pegs Detroit’s population at 656,000.

Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies, said it is a crucial time for Detroit and it’s important for leaders to focus on creating jobs and improving education.

“It could tip either way depending on what policymakers actually do,” Thompson said.

cmacdonald@detroitnews.com

Staff Writers Mike Martindale and Nicquel Terry contributed.

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