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Cities Prosper Better Without Growth

It’s not often I get to applaud good media coverage of urban growth. The myth of prosperity from growth at the community level is still very firmly embedded in the hearts and minds of politicians, most of the general public and – yes, even journalists. Governing magazine and J.B. Wogan make the Wall of Fame today for:

Population Growth Means a City Is Thriving, or Does It?
Public officials and reporters alike adopt the myth that bigger is better. That’s not always the case.

It’s great to see this question examined, especially in a magazine so many policymakers are reading. Wogan begins with something we routinely call out here at Growth Bias Busted:

“Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau releases its latest data on cities and population growth. The reaction is always the same: News outlets look at the numbers showing which places gained and which ones shed residents, and use them as instant proxies for a decline, a boom or a turnaround in cities all over the country.”

This piece documents well the common attitude about these reports:

“In Detroit, where the population fell 64 percent between 1950 and 2016, Mayor Mike Duggan told The Wall Street Journal shortly after he took office three years ago that ‘the single standard a mayor should be defined on is whether the population of the city is going up or going down.’

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has pledged to add 20,000 new residents by 2025. Since 1950, his city’s population has dropped from a high of nearly 677,000 residents to about 304,000. ‘I’ve lived here my entire life,’ says the 52-year-old Peduto, ‘and there’s never been a time that I’ve seen this city grow.’ Each year, deaths outnumber births in Pittsburgh, and Peduto sees the recruitment of new residents as crucial to his city’s long-term economic outlook. ‘As people begin to retire, there isn’t a generation to take over those jobs, so we have to bring in more people,’ he says….”

J.B. Wogan doesn’t get into the (apparently advanced) topics of sustainability, carrying capacity, and the impossibility of perpetual growth on a finite planet. But that’s probably a plus, as those topics haven’t historically held as much sway with the governing class as this:

“Although the preponderance of media opinion has always been that more people make a better city, there has long existed a cluster of academics who challenge that wisdom. Perhaps the leading voice in this contrarian club is Paul Gottlieb, an economist at Rutgers University…. Fifteen years ago, in a paper titled “Growth Without Growth,’ Gottlieb called attention to 23 of the largest 100 metro areas, which he nicknamed ‘wealth builders.’ Those were places with below-average increases in population and above-average increases in per capita income. 

Another group of metro areas, which Gottlieb labeled ‘population magnets,’ had excelled at gaining residents but performed below average at increasing per capita income.”

I was glad to see Wogan also turn to another noted expert:

“In 2012, Eben Fodor, a land use planner and urban consultant, ran a similar analysis with more recent data. In an article in Economic Development Quarterly, Fodor compared annual population growth with three economic indicators: per capita income, poverty and unemployment. Among the 100 largest metro areas, faster growth rates were associated with lower incomes, greater income declines and more people in poverty. The 25 slowest-growing areas outperformed the 25 fastest-growing areas across all three measures.”

Now that data, rather than the mythology of conventional wisdom, should speak to the policymakers. And so should some case studies:

“Chicago is perhaps the best example. It has been losing people steadily over most of the past generation. In the first decade of the new century, it suffered a net population loss of 210,000. At the same time, its downtown and adjoining neighborhoods were experiencing a renaissance and even becoming a magnet for large corporate headquarters. And because most of the departing residents were relatively poor, and the new ones tended to be well-educated professionals, the city was becoming more affluent even as it shrank.”

And testimonials from mayors:

“Growth in itself doesn’t ensure that you have a great community,’ says Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville, AL…. Battle refuses to articulate growth as his administration’s objective. ‘Being the largest doesn’t make your citizens’ quality of life better, doesn’t make their education better and doesn’t make their commute time better,’ he says.”

Leave it to Fodor (author of the classic Better, Not Bigger) to give us the major takeaway:

“Communities need to be thinking about stabilizing in the long term,’ he says. ‘We need to get off the endless growth bandwagon.”

When I corresponded with him about this story, Fodor had this comment:

“Another remarkable finding is that stable metro areas (those with little or no growth) did relatively well. Statistically-speaking, residents of an area with no growth over the 9-year period tended to have 43% more income gain than an area growing at 3%/year. Undoubtedly this offers a ray of hope that stable, sustainable communities may be perfectly viable — even prosperous — within our current economic system.”

Of course, in my view, income gains have no place anywhere near the top of any list of sustainable community goals (in an overconsuming world), but I think it’s potentially effective to use this popular metric to debunk the myth of prosperity from growth.

This story also valiantly goes into detail about special interests that push growth and the short-term benefits/long-term costs that work against rational, sustainable public policy on growth. It’s very much worth a read, and it’s a fantastic resource to share with elected officials in your community.

Cities need to decide what “prosperity” really is. They need to figure out how to achieve that without growth. The good news here is that, rather than advancing prosperity, growth just gets in the way. That gets us closer to the final answer.

Global population is going to stop growing within a hundred years certainly, possibly much sooner. It will then contract back to a sustainable level (one way or another). Cities that cling too long to antiquated growth goals and metrics will find themselves sitting on masses of stranded assets – infrastructure they can’t pay for and no longer need. I think the smart cities will get off the growth bandwagon now.

I leave you with this parting thought from Eben Fodor:

“While prosperity can generate growth, the question is whether the reverse is true: Does growth generate prosperity? My study shows that this is unlikely, contrary to the conventional wisdom.”

Eben Fodor’s studies and publications

Paul Gottlieb’s Growth Without Growth study

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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

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