RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina’s biggest cities got bigger during the past decade. Its smallest counties got even smaller.

The influx of North Carolinians from rural to urban areas was the key theme from the most recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Many of our rural areas, particularly those that do not have what we call a high amenity like a retiree-attractiveness factor, lost population — often, lost it quite significantly,” said Rebecca Tippett, the founding director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina.

A separate study says Raleigh was the nation’s second-fastest-growing large metropolitan area during the past half-decade, behind only Austin, Texas — and that was before the Census Bureau found the city’s population grew by more than 15 percent since 2010.

“The current data suggests that there’s going to be continued growth in those areas,” Tippett said.

Of the seven counties where their populations grew by 20 percent since 2010, four — Johnston, Wake, Durham and Chatham — are part of the Triangle.

(Source: Carolina Demography.)

Wake grew by 25 percent and formally overtook Mecklenburg as the state’s most populous county.

Combined, those two have more than 2.2 million people — meaning more than 1 in 5 North Carolinians live in one of those two counties.

But the state’s smallest county — Tyrrell County — lost 26 percent of its the 4,407 residents it had 10 years ago. Hyde County’s population dropped by 21 percent. 

And of the 14 counties that had the fewest residents in 2010, 11 of them had even fewer people in 2020.

Tippett says the rural-to-urban shift mainly has to do with employment, saying it reflects the continued shift from an economy based on agriculture and small-town manufacturing to one that is more service- and knowledge-based.

“There’s a lot of movement for economic opportunity,” she said. “People are moving to those places because that’s where the jobs are.”

Tippett says that growth can lead to ripple effects — from a larger tax base to more traffic to even more of a housing crunch. The 27616 ZIP code in northeast Raleigh was selected as one of the 10 hottest spots in the country by Realtor.com.

“Individuals who may not be able to afford those new prices or who may not want to pay that much are going to increasingly live further away,” Tippett said.

She says the boom in Raleigh is starting to show up in surrounding counties. The population of Johnston County grew by 28 percent since 2010 — the largest percent change in the state.

“A strong urban core can lift also the surrounding areas,” Tippett said. “So we’re starting to see some really strong spillover growth in places like the southern part of Franklin (County) that’s near Durham and Wake.”