Washington has slipped in population among the nation's big cities and now ranks 25th, behind Charlotte, El Paso, Fort Worth and Seattle, according to government estimates released today.

The Census Bureau figures for July 2003 also show that the widely touted urban renaissance of the 1990s slowed markedly in the first third of the new decade.

The numbers also show that Washington -- ranked 21st in 2000 -- experienced the sharpest drop in the standings among the nation's largest metropolitan areas. The four cities that surpassed Washington are growing, according to the new figures. City officials dispute the accuracy of a census estimate released in December, but Census Bureau officials stand by their conclusion that the District continues to slowly shrink.

The census figures show that the District is a unique hybrid among cities: It is located in the South but differs from the regional profile of fast-growing cities. At the same time, its hot housing market and solid base of government jobs show that it cannot be lumped with such struggling and population-losing areas as Detroit and St. Louis.

The city's recent population decline and slide in the rankings will make it harder for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to achieve his goal of adding 100,000 people to the city's numbers by the end of the decade. But demographers said yesterday that population size or ranking is not necessarily the best measure of the city's success.

The shrinkage of the District to a city of 563,384 reflects, in part, the departure of families and the arrival of smaller households of couples or singles, most without children and many with larger incomes than those who left, they said. The city's real estate prices are rising so rapidly that there is concern about an affordable-housing crisis.

"Washington may not be for everyone, but it seems to be playing to its strengths," said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "Smaller could be better." Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey said Washington clearly is "a niche for professionals, a niche for young people and a niche for a certain elite."

"When we meet with retailers, they are looking at population density, income and education levels," said Michael G. Stevens, president of the Washington, D.C., Marketing Center. "There are other indices that people look at besides purely population."

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Williams, said D.C. officials continue to believe that the census number is wrong and plan to assemble other data to make their case. "We still maintain that -- in the immortal words of Bob Dylan -- you don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows," Bullock said.

Experts agree that the 1990s were a turnaround for many older cities whose images and economies were battered by suburban flight. The good economy helped drive poverty rates down, and a surge of immigration pushed population counts up in many places. A third of the way through a new decade, though, most cities are growing less or shrinking more than they did during the previous one, the figures show.

"I suspect that it turns out that some of the trends were temporary trends," said John Logan, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany. He said the deflated renaissance elsewhere is especially apparent in some midwestern cities.

Seventy-two cities with populations of 245,000 or more have lost population since the 2000 Census, Frey said. In the 1990s, 41 did. Lang said 29 of the three dozen older big cities he studied for a report on urban turnaround during the 1990s have had bigger losses or smaller gains this decade.

Washington, however, is not among them. Lang said the city's rate of population loss so far this decade was about the same as in the 1990s.

The reason that Washington fell in the rankings was that other places did better, notably the two Texas cities. Steve Murdock, the state demographer, said that Texas has "slowed down as much as everyone" in the number of people moving in from other parts of the country but that births are soaring and immigration continues unabated.

The census estimates announced today are based on such government records as visas, birth certificates and tax returns, so they are considered less reliable than the once-a-decade, door-to-door count.