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Growing cities can have environmental and economic benefits
Only thing weirder than “keeping [X] weird” is accepting shrinking cities
Recently, there has been some optimistic thinking coming from a couple of cities along the Great Lakes: a vision of a region no longer stagnant in population or shrinking, but growing again. Upon his election in April 2022, the new mayor of Milwaukee, Cavalier Johnson, stated a vision of the city with a population of about 1 million, compared to its current population of around 577 thousand. More recently, Chicago mayoral candidate Kambium Buckner expressed a more immediate goal of growing his city to a population of 3 million, compared to its current population of around 2.75 million today. Compared to incumbent Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who recently stated Chicago was “at maximum capacity” Johnson and Buckner’s visions are much more optimistic for the future of the American city — but unfortunately, also seem to be quite novel today.
For all of the talk about the divide between a shrinking rurality and booming, populous cities, many American cities are not growing that much either. Indeed, many of them have actually shrunk or stagnated in recent decades, to the point where in relative, and often absolute terms as well, fewer Americans live in many prominent cities today compared to 1960. In the table below, I’ve pulled out a sample set of cities in the east coast and Midwest comparing their Census population in 1960 to 2020, as well as the difference between those two figures calculated as a percentage. Finally, I also calculated what each city’s hypothetical population might have looked like had it grown at the same rate as the United States during those sixty years: by 119%.
|1960 population||2020 population||Percent change||1960 pace?|
|New York City||7,781,984||8,804,190||13.14%||17,044,880|
Already by 1960, many of the cities listed here had begun to experience population loss; the populations of Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Washington, and Cincinnati actually peaked even earlier, in 1950. Still, the figures are stark: Even in New York, still the largest and most economically powerful city in the country, a larger proportion of Americans were New Yorkers in 1960 than they are today, in the 2020s. The results of the table show that snooty New Yorkers are not overrepresented in the U.S. today; if anything, they are missing an additional 8 million compatriots in “da Big Apple” as the city’s population has grown comparatively little compared to the rest of the country.
From this perspective, the demographic goals of Mayor Johnson actually seem somewhat modest; had Milwaukee’s population kept pace with the growth of the US writ large since 1960, its population in the most recent 2020 Census would actually be more than 1.6 million, and still growing. This all raises a natural question: If these prominent American cities grew so little, or shrank over a period of time where the country’s population more than doubled, where did all the people go?
For many people, they have still remained in the same region, but have decamped the city proper for the suburbs. Metropolitan Chicago has a population of 9.6 million, and metropolitan Milwaukee has a population of 1.5 million — both much more closely aligned with the hypothetical “1960 pace” figures than the actual population of the cities today. In large part, this was accomplished through the destruction of housing within cities — often the neighborhoods of Black, Hispanic, Jewish, and immigrant communities — to make way for highways that would shuttle residents into the suburbs.
However, suburban sprawl alone does not tell the full story, simply as many people have left the east and the Midwest in order to head south and west. This can be visualized a concept known as the “center of population,” explained by the Census Bureau as “the average location of where people in the United States currently live.” At the time of the first Census in 1790, this was somewhere in Maryland; by 1960 it had shifted to southern Illinois. Since 1980, reflecting continuing migration to the Sun Belt, the center of population has meandered its way south and west through Missouri; if these trends continue, perhaps it will find itself near the environs of Fayetteville, Arkansas by the end of the century. Already though, the environmental implications of these geographic patterns are reaching a head, as the Great Salt Lake and the Colorado River threaten to dry up in a matter of years due to demographic pressure, if a radical change in course is not taken.
Furthermore, the current modality of sprawling suburbs and hollowed out urban cores is simply fiscally unsustainable. When places are more spread out and require a car to go everywhere, there simply needs to be a lot more roads, pipes, electric wiring, and so forth per person — which all has to be paid for somehow. There are opportunity costs, such as valuable farmland which is consumed to make way for tract homes. There are climate costs, where per capita greenhouse gas emissions in suburban areas are significantly higher in suburbs than in rural or urban areas. There are personal costs, such as a rate of gasoline consumption so high in the U.S. that Americans spend nearly twice as much on gas as the average Swede, even though the average price for a gallon of gas in Sweden is well over $6. Far from hypothetical, this has already lead to the functional insolvency of many American cities.
The amnesia many Americans today seem to have about cities — that American cities can grow quickly, and that American cities can have larger populations — also prevents our urban centers from providing what cities do best. With a large enough population concentrated in a single area, there becomes enough people to provide the tax revenues for public services like parks or transit at a relatively inexpensive cost per person. It becomes viable for minority communities to find each other, support each other, and share their culture with others — 5 percent of 30 thousand feels a lot different from 5 percent of 300 thousand, or even 3 million. And perhaps most saliently, densification of urban areas is an important component of climate action, with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stating that “cities can only achieve net zero or near zero [greenhouse gas] emissions … including through compact and efficient urban forms and supporting infrastructure.”
Even so, Americans today seem squeamish about the notion of urban growth today. The new apartment buildings going up are derided as bland and ugly, even if the apartment building’s predecessor was a fast-food restaurant, or the “gentrification building” in question is actually affordable housing. Even as enrollment in urban school districts declines and school closures continue apace in urban cores as small as Cedar Rapids and as large as Chicago, people who still portray themselves as urban advocates still float the possibility that in fact, it actually might be good if cities were not accommodating to those such as families with young children, leaving them to decamp for the suburbs while leaving the True Urbanites to authentically enjoy the city for themselves. Never mind Republicans, who seem to have drank enough of their tough-on-crime Kool-Aid to become genuinely afraid of tall buildings, as if it is reasonable to describe staying at the John Hancock Center in Chicago as “living the purge” — an ordeal Illinois Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey recently survived.
For the sake of the climate and the economy, we should welcome a reinvigorated spirit of demographic growth into American cities. Where economically feasible, municipal leaders across the country should place as a high priority policy interventions to accommodate and welcome population growth in the urban core of cities, not the suburbs. This can, and must be done equitably if that goal is to be achieved, by making cities accessible to everyone: families, children, the elderly, young people, immigrants, newcomers, and townies alike. While space is made for new people by policies such as upzoning, densification, and infill development atop of parking lots, existing residents must not be forced out due to displacement at the same time. If implemented properly, policies like rent control and right of first refusal can be components of a larger agenda of both protecting current residents while creating space to welcome in again millions of urban residents who had left America’s cities decades ago.
Instead of imploring to keep people from moving to desirable places out of a notion of “keeping [X] weird” or hand-wringing over new apartments replacing a Burger King, newcomers should be welcomed as sources of diversity and economic power, to support commerce and public services. Instead of a manufactured urban and rural divide, both sides could find solidarity in directing their animus toward the suburbs, which have consumed the lion’s share of wealth, resources, and population growth in the recent history of this country.
Austin Wu is a Gazette editorial fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org
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