Experts: cities like Chicago may lose population but they don’t shrink

A group of experts at a recent conference suggest Chicago may have lost population but it is not shrinking:

Chicago’s population may have dropped 20 percent since 1950, but experts who gathered at the DePaul Center yesterday said the rise of developments on the city’s south and west sides are promising signs that the city isn’t “shrinking,” according to Medill Reports.

“Physically, cities don’t shrink,” said Brian Bernardoni, director of government affairs for the Chicago Association of Realtors. “What does shrink is productivity, jobs and job opportunity, tax bases and population.” The Chicago Association of Realtors’ seminar that looked at the concept of “shrinking cities” (places with sustained population loss and spiking levels of blight and abandoned properties) found recent developments like Oakwood Shores and Park Boulevard, and potential future megaprojects such as plans to convert the old South Works steel mill site to a mixed-use city within a city or McPier’s McCormick-area arena and hotel proposal, may protect us from the unflattering moniker.

According to Medill’s recap, “of all North American cities with a million people, Chicago recorded the greatest population loss in the last census,” but the city officials, urban planners, and developers at the event – including Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th); Scott Freres of The Lakota Group; Joe Williams of Granite Companies, Myer Blank of True Partners Consulting; and DePaul professor Joe Schwieterman – seem to hold a hardy optimism.

This may be parsing words. In a popular sense, cities that lose population do not look good. For example, Rust Belt cities that have lost population, including Chicago, are seen as having major problems. On the flip side, cities that gain population, like Sunbelt cities in recent years, are seen as successful and making progress. In a more technical sense, these experts are probably right: it takes a long time for the physical footprint of a city to significantly decrease. This is an issue Detroit is facing right now. The population has dropped significantly but what is to be done with vacant houses and land? And what happens if development blooms at one spot in a city, like at the old South Works steel mill site, while other parts of the city really languish?

There are important long-term issues to consider. Chicago still faces an uphill battle in terms of fighting the trends of recent decades and it will take quite a bit of money and work to pull off these new projects. In cities growing at faster rates, growth does not necessarily lead to good outcomes even if it is often viewed as a good sign.

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