Can American residents and leaders be convinced population stagnation or loss is not that bad?

Chicago continues to lose residents and Houston is coming up fast. A sociologist is cited as saying the population decrease is not that bad:

Christine Percheski, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, cautioned that while it is significant to note that Chicago is losing people, “this does not necessarily reflect the health or the functioning of the city.”

An array of complicated factors are at play in population numbers, including changes to mortality, fertility and immigration rates, she noted.

I believe Percheski is right: the relatively small population loss in Chicago plus the city’s ability to avoid the larger population losses experienced by many Rust Belt cities means this is not a huge deal. Of course, getting passed by Houston in population will matter (though Toronto passing Chicago barely registered).

But, will residents and leaders ever be convinced that a lack of growth is not bad? Because growth is good and this argument is rarely challenged, population stagnation or loss set off an alarm bell. Why exactly this is the case is a bit harder to articulate but it likely involves a loss of status and a suggestion that the city has limited momentum heading into the future.

At this point, the United States does not have good models of cities and communities that have stalled out in population or even declined that are widely regarded as successful places. Chicago could be one of these models and perhaps it could work because it is so big and so storied. On the other hand, if Chicago has small population loss for decades, this adds up and will require Chicago leaders to work harder and harder to convince residents and businesses that the long-term story is not bad.

Trying to create a bust-proof oil city

Midland, Texas is looking for ways to utilize the benefits of the current oil boom to prevent a future bust:

In the Permian, “we don’t say boom anymore,” according to Morales, who serves as mayor of the nation’s fastest growing city. “We’re very sustainable. The boom-and-bust era is over.”…

The Permian rose from the dead with the advent of fracking a decade ago to become a market beast, producing about a third of U.S. oil as it grew to become one of the world’s most prolific oilfields.

In the process, though, local resources were stretched beyond their limits. Now, Morales and others say the region may be settling into adulthood. Employers still struggle to fill jobs in competition with the oilfields, roads are jammed, schools overflow and home prices are sky-high. But local leaders say they have plans and resources set to secure a long-term future…

The partnership being forged between the oil companies and the local communities is unlike anything achieved elsewhere, Bentley said.

Growth is good in any American community. When the population is increasing, businesses arrive in town, and money is being made, a lot of problems can be overlooked (including the issues of adjusting to sudden or rapid growth).

But, growth does not always continue or move at the same pace. This seems especially true for places reliant on limited natural resources like oil. At some point, the oil runs out or prices change and the boom is over. Reliance on any single industry or produced good – think Detroit and cars – can lead to problems.

I would guess that few communities could quickly replace or recover from the loss of a business sector that seems to be as important as oil is in Midland. At the same time, resiliency is a buzz word in many circles as cities, regions, and states consider how they might set themselves up to be more adaptable to the sudden changes that could come. Imagine New York City without the finance industry, Silicon Valley without tech, Miami without tourism and beaches, and so on. Building infrastructure now and sowing the seeds for other industries and sectors to grow in the future could be a good hedge for a time when oil is not booming.

Focusing on the fastest-growing American cities reinforces the idea that growth is good

For American communities, growth is generally good. Growth comes with multiple benefits including the idea that it is an important community to pay attention to. In other words, growth equals a higher status (and population stagnation or decline is bad).

So when USA Today publishes a list of the fastest-growing cities in each state, it helps reinforce the idea that explosive growth is good. Here are a few of the listings with higher rates of growth:

Arizona: Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 15.6% (state: 11.9%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 4.3% (state: 5.1%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 20.1% (state: 16.6%)
• Median household income: $61,506 (state: $56,581)…

Colorado: Greeley
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 23.7% (state: 12.8%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 2.9% (state: 3.7%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 34.1% (state: 19.9%)
• Median household income: $68,884 (state: $69,117)…

Florida: The Villages
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 36.6% (state: 13.0%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 5.1% (state: 3.5%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 42.9% (state: 19.5%)
• Median household income: $54,057 (state: $52,594)…

Oregon: Bend-Redmond
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 21.7% (state: 9.2%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 4.5% (state: 4.4%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 36.0% (state: 17.8%)
• Median household income: $66,273 (state: $60,212)

Growth can have additional benefits beyond a higher status. Having more residents  is related to more taxes, more businesses, and more clout in the political realm. Growth can make local politicians who presided over the changes look good. Communities can change their character in significant ways when growth comes.

At the same time, growth can have a number of downsides: strained local services, lots of new residents in the community (which can lead to issues with more longer-term residents), the use of more land and resources, and an accrual of the benefits of growth to only some in the community (usually in the local growth machine) rather than the community as a whole. Furthermore, communities can usually only experience significant growth for a short period.

On the whole, there are many worthwhile American communities that have limited population growth (and the growth could be limited for a variety of reasons). Only paying attention to the fast-growing places and drawing lessons from those communities unnecessarily valorizes big population increases while diminishing the other factors that contribute to what makes a worth community to live in.

From suburban to downtown growth in Aurora, Illinois

The suburb of Aurora grew tremendously in recent decades but now has little new land. Thus, to grow it must build up or become denser:

Today, the city’s once-booming growth has slowed to a crawl, census estimates show. Officials say there is room for growth, but that growth will look different.

There’s little room for more subdivisions to sprout across the community as they did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, the focus will be on downtown and the city’s train line, building up, not out, said Stephane Phifer, a longtime Aurora city planner who now works with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning…

As growth slows, the city has an opportunity to focus on redevelopment of downtown and working with the city’s neighborhoods, Nelson said. Downtown is the “new frontier” for development, he said.

Interest is building in downtown Aurora, Nelson said. The area is developing its own identity, largely centered around the arts.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. A shift from such explosive growth – the population doubling in two decades – to less growth can be quite drastic. A community gets used to the new subdivisions, the new city employees needed to provide local services, the changes to local school districts, and other social impacts.
  2. The assumption in this article is that growth is good. This is a common sentiment across American communities. What if Aurora stayed at roughly the same population – would it automatically be a failure?
  3. Aurora is not the only Chicago area suburb facing this issue. For example, neighboring Naperville has been considering this shift in growth for at least a few years. Numerous suburbs closer to the city have had this issue for decades. Few Chicago suburbs have the potential to truly become huge suburbs – imagine Aurora at 300,000 residents with a really dense and interesting downtown along the Fox River. But, to do so will mean competing with other suburbs for residents, entertainment options, and amenities.

All together, this could be a significant turning point in the history of Aurora as a community. Will it pursue downtown and denser development in the same way it pursued suburban growth in the last few decades? Will it focus on quality rather than quantity?

How a growing suburb plans to remain “a small town at heart”

Many growing suburbs claim to still be small towns in spirit. Here is how the mayor of Warrenville makes this argument while explaining a new development:

At the September 21, City Council meeting, nearly unanimous preliminary approval was given to a new development that will occupy a 4.3-acre site adjacent to the Warrenville Library called Settlers Pointe. this moderate dense development will consist of 34 single-family homes, 14 two-story and 20 three-story units, selling in the $350,000 to $450,000 price range. I believe this project will be a wonderful addition to Warrenville on many levels, but there was a time when I would have viewed this development through a different lens, and because of its density, would have been adamantly opposed to it as “not in line with the character of Warrenville”…

In the case of Settlers Pointe, it will be good for Warrenville in many ways. It is an attractive development being done by an accomplished and quality developer (google David Weekley Homes) who knows the market. You have told us that a very high priority is economic development. Essential to that goal is “rooftops”. Businesses will not invest in areas without enough people to support them. these new homes will help spur the redevelopment of our downtown, something else you have given us as a priority…

Rural may no longer be geographically possible for our town, but we have resolved to remain a small town at heart. this is the “character” that you have consistently told us that is most important to you to enhance and preserve. It is independent of housing style or lot size. The people who choose to come to Settlers Pointe in Warrenville will do so because they see who we are and want to be one of us: small town folks enjoying the best of all possible worlds.

This explanation seems to me to be a bit odd given the relatively small size of the development – it is a small site though centrally located – yet the way it is made is similar to pitches I’ve seen in other suburbs in my research. Here are some key elements:

  1. Americans generally like the ideas of small towns. As this earlier post put it, American politicians push small town values in a suburban country. The vast majority of Americans live in urban areas – over 80% – yet they hold to older visions of community life. Appealing to small town ideals is a safe move.
  2. Broader social forces have pushed a community past its old identity and the community can’t go back. Once there is a certain level of growth or enough time has passed, “progress” is happening with or without us. (Of course, there are plenty of communities where they try to freeze things in time. See this example. But, those who support new development often say this can’t be done – and they’re probably right in thinking about the long-term.)
  3. New growth can be good, even as it contributes to change and a newer identity. Economic reasons are typically cited: business growth is good, an expanded tax base is good, new attention from potential new residents is good.
  4. The development under approval is not too different from what already exists. If there is a group fighting the project, they will argue otherwise.
  5. Even with change and growth, it is possible to hold on to the “character” or “spirit” of a small town. Local officials typically refer to the actions of residents and community groups, implying that people still know and care for each other. For example, Naperville leaders suggest their suburb with over 140,000 people still has this spirit.

Of course, these arguments are often challenged by residents who don’t see it the same way. NIMBY responses typically don’t want a community to fundamentally change; the way it is now is why those residents moved into town. But, some change is inevitable so perhaps these arguments are really about the degree of perceived change. Will this “fundamentally” alter the community? Is this a slippery slope? This can be the case with development decisions but significant change tends to come through a chain of decisions and these patterns are easier to diagnose in hindsight. (See Naperville as an example.) Residents can also feel relatively powerless compared to local politicians or businesses who have power to make decisions while local leaders tend to claim they are looking out for the good of the whole community.

Change is not easy in suburbs. And it is often a process that may look different in its physical manifestations even as the elements of the arguments made both for and against development follow some common patterns.

“Cloak-and-dagger building deal blows up on Naperville”

An intriguing headline leads to a story of how much suburbs are willing to do to attract companies and jobs:

SKF Group, a manufacturer of ball bearings, seals and lubrication systems, approached city officials through an attorney in July 2014. The planning and zoning commission approved the project without knowing which company was putting it forward…

“I don’t want to take a chance of messing up this deal. This is the kind of deal every city wants,” Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said last year as a council member.

The 130,000-square-foot building at 1203 Warrenville Road was projected to employ 200 people whose research in materials testing would contribute to energy-saving products…

Naperville officials said they feel some disappointment that SKF changed course after all of their efforts to welcome the project into the city, despite neighbor concerns about traffic, noise and privacy disruptions. But having the company pull out before hiring local employees is not the worst-case scenario, Chirico said.

“The good news is we’re not losing existing jobs, it’s future jobs,” Chirico said. “It would have been a lot worse had we had a company that located here, hired people and then all the sudden they lost all their jobs.”

This is the sort of company that helped Naperville reach its lofty heights of population, wealth, and jobs: an international business bringing white-collar positions. Although the suburb didn’t offer them any tax breaks (the company would have received breaks from Illinois), Naperville leaders did go around their normal process to try to make this happen.

If this building sits empty for a while, things could get interesting. Naperville is not used to empty structures and any suburb would want the building and land to be a positive contribution to the local tax base.

Planners vote against Illiana Expressway

The proposed Illiana Expressway is in limbo after the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning rejected the project:

However, because the vote, 10-4, was not a sufficient supermajority, it puts the ultimate fate of the project in limbo.

The Illiana is a proposed tollway linking I-55 in the South suburbs with I-65 in Indiana that would be built as a public-private partnership. While Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation are backing it as a vital piece of infrastructure, CMAP experts warned in 2013 it will cost Illinois taxpayers up to $1.1 billion with limited benefits…

Today and Thursday is a rematch of sorts. Officials will vote on what should have been a routine decision — approving an update of GO TO 2040, a blueprint for growth in the region. In this go-round with the Nov. 4 election looming, Quinn has been pushing hard in favor of the expressway, claimed leaders of the Environmental Law and Policy Center who warned some CMAP board members might reverse their votes. ELPC officials quoted a toll industry publication describing the project as a “lemon,” and pointed out that CMAP has prioritized other projects over the Illiana. These include the Route 53 extension and Elgin-O’Hare Expressway expansion. The group has sued over the issue, claiming the MPO essentially lacked authority to override CMAP. The Illinois Department of Transportation estimates construction jobs should total about 9,000 and permanent jobs, mostly in freight and manufacturing, would amount to around 28,000.

However, the Metropolitan Planning Council said the project would drain jobs out of Illinois into Indiana, hurting employment in Chicago, Cook and the collar counties excepting Will County. IDOT officials said they stand behind the Illiana project.

A number of interested parties here and it is not clear how this will turn out. It is a classic urban planning issue: one side claiming economic growth, federal money, and jobs while the other side disputes the growth figures and asks who will be left on the hook if the road doesn’t generate the money it is supposed to. Growth is a pretty powerful motivator – particularly in a state that needs positive economic news as well as a Chicago region that is struggling, if not in reality, then perhaps always in its own perceptions – but difficult financial realities make a $1 billion+ project difficult to quickly approve.

UPDATE: The above article wasn’t the clearest on the next steps in the process. Here is some more details from the Chicago Tribune.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning board needed a 12-vote supermajority of its 15 members to remove the Illiana from its comprehensive plan, but opponents of the project could only muster 10 votes.

The spotlight will now fall on members of a companion agency, the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee, who will meet on the issue Thursday.

And the voting seemed to go along geographic lines:

One of the CMAP board members whose vote could have helped turn the tide against the Illiana failed to show for the meeting.

Andrew Madigan, an appointee of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was absent, as he was last year when the Illiana originally came up for the planning agency’s approval. Emanuel’s other four appointees voted against the Illiana.

Madigan is the son of House Speaker Michael Madigan. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Also casting votes against the Illiana were four of five suburban Cook County representatives; and the representatives from Lake and McHenry counties.

Voting in favor of the Illiana were representatives from Will, DuPage and Kane Counties, and the representative from south Cook County.

Voters closer to the highway seem to have been in favor while those further away – Chicago and the northern counties – voted against it.