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  5. Introduction



This Chapter provides the context for the Comprehensive Plan. It summarizes where we have been, where we are today, and where we are going, building on data and findings from the Lancaster Today report (Appendix A). This Chapter also explains the Plan’s policy framework, organizational structure, and Land Use Plan. 


The town of Lancaster was founded in the early 1730s and developed into a regional center serving the surrounding agricultural community. Located at the intersection of major roadways, Lancaster was an important settlement on the primary route of westward expansion through Pennsylvania. By the mid-1700s, Lancaster was one of the largest inland towns in America. Lancaster became a borough in 1742 and incorporated as a city in 1818.

Today, Lancaster City is home to about 60,000 people in a 7.4 square mile area. Most of its residents live in the 4-square mile historic area that was the original charter for the city. Parts of the city reach densities close to 40,000 people per square mile, nearly four times the average density of Philadelphia or Washington, DC. This creates a sense of vibrancy and walkability that make Lancaster a desirable place to live, work, and visit. The city’s extensive historic architecture is a source of pride and is protected by one of the country’s largest continuous National Register Districts. Many Lancaster residents live in compact, mixed-use urban neighborhoods that have stood the test of time.

At the time of the first US Census in 1790, Lancaster had fewer than 4,000 residents. The city grew modestly in the first half of the 19th Century and then expanded rapidly between 1850 and 1900 as the railroad arrived and industry took root. By 1900, Lancaster had over 41,000 residents. The city’s population reached nearly 64,000 by 1950, and then slightly declined and leveled off in the late 20th Century. 

Population growth after World War II was modest, as suburban Lancaster County’s growth accelerated. State annexation laws allowed the City to incorporate an additional 3.2 square miles, primarily during the 1960s. Those laws were changed in the 1970s, halting the City’s expansion. Between 1970 and 2020, the population has remained fairly stable, peaking at about 59,000 in 2010. Census estimates in 2023 indicated a population of 57,088.

The most significant demographic trend over the last 50 years relates not to the size of the population, but to its racial and ethnic composition. The city has become increasingly diverse and multi-cultural. As Figure 2-1 illustrates, fewer than half of the City’s residents identify as White today, compared to 85 percent in the County and 78 percent in the State. About 40 percent of Lancaster’s residents identified as Hispanic/Latino in 2020, compared to just four percent in 1970.

The age profile of the city is also changing (Figure 2-2). Lancaster tends to have a younger population than the county and state, but its median age has been increasing. The median age in the city was 32.7 in 2020, up from 30.3 a decade earlier. The fastest growing age cohort in the city is now residents over 65. This not only reflects the aging of the baby boomer generation but also Lancaster’s popularity as a place for retirement.

The city’s economy has also changed over time. Lancaster remains a regional hub, with nearly 37,000 jobs in the city in 2018. This is larger than the number of employed Lancaster city residents (24,460), indicating that a substantial number of workers commute in from surrounding areas. The top industry by employment share is the health care and social assistance sector, representing 29 percent of all jobs. Other major sectors are education services (11 percent), manufacturing (10 percent) and retail (9 percent). The strength of the education and health sectors suggests there is an “Eds and Meds” cluster in the city that can drive future economic development.

Looking to the future, Lancaster City is expected to grow modestly. Places 2040, the Lancaster County Comprehensive Plan, indicates that the countywide population may increase by as much as 100,000 by 2040. Lancaster can potentially capture a larger share of that growth than it has in the past through strategic plans and programs that position the city for reinvestment. The city offers unique amenities and advantages that can draw new residents, businesses, and visitors. This has been affirmed by recent investments in Lancaster, and more than 1,500 more units in the local residential development pipeline.


Lancaster City has seen much change over its history. Today, we live in a time of accelerated change, driven by technology, information, communication, and globalization. We confront new challenges every day—climate change, a housing shortage, environmental quality, and the lingering effects of a pandemic that changed the way we live and work. Some of these challenges threaten the quality of life while others present the opportunity to improve it.

Like much of the country, Lancaster faces a housing crisis that puts homeownership (and even rental apartments) out of reach for many residents. In 2021, about 46 percent of the city’s renters were considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they paid more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. Zillow’s Home Value Index indicates countywide home prices have increased almost 47 percent in the last five years alone. The impacts of rising rents and home prices fall disproportionately on lower income residents, who must set aside a growing share of their incomes for housing. 

Lancaster City is also experiencing the impacts of climate change. In 2023, the city faced severe air pollution from Canadian wildfires and unpredictable weather patterns. Lancaster City still has a combined stormwater-sewer system (CSS) that spills untreated sewage into the Conestoga River. This is already a major infrastructural and public health problem that could be exacerbated as flood risks increase. These patterns will only intensify in future years, likely in unpredictable ways that complicate solutions. 

Simultaneously, technologies such as Artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to revolutionize various industries, including healthcare, transportation, and finance, by streamlining processes, improving efficiency, and enabling faster decision-making. These advances are not without potential consequences. The widespread adoption of AI raises concerns about privacy, security, and the potential for job displacement, as automation replaces certain tasks previously performed by humans. The verdict is still out on how this will impact Lancaster City. Technology is also revolutionizing how people get around–one-wheel and two-wheel electric scooters, electric bikes, increasingly automated cars, and more. These micro transit options have implications for how we build and regulate public rights of way. 

Plans for the future must also acknowledge the consequences of past land use decisions on health, equity, and income inequality. This is the result of structural factors both explicit and implicit throughout the history of the United States. During the 20th Century, practices such as racial covenants, discriminatory lending, and urban renewal resulted in communities of color remaining segregated and denied the opportunity to build generational wealth. Many of these patterns are evident in Lancaster City today. The process of becoming a more inclusive city requires a plan that is underpinned by a commitment to more equitable growth. 

Given the pace of change, the challenges ahead, and the fact Lancaster City has not had an updated Comprehensive Plan in 30 years, the time to envision our future is now. By creating a well-structured plan, the community can prioritize its goals and allocate resources effectively, leading to better utilization of assets and improved problem-solving capabilities. A comprehensive plan can help the community anticipate future challenges and opportunities, and proactive measures to achieve sustainable development and resilience in the face of an uncertain future.