My latest post is online at New Geography. It is called “The 10% Solution for Urban Growth“. My thesis is that for cities below the top tier (tier one’s are already seeing a major urban influx because of their high quality product and economic changes), the best policy is to seek to capture about 10% of net new regional growth for the urban core. If we can get more, great, but let’s start with that base goal and develop a strategy to get there.
This might seem particularly unambitious, but it would actually be totally transformative:
Cincinnati provides another example. It is a metro growing a bit less than the national average, but still adding people at a rate of about 150,000 per decade. The city of Cincinnati declined from a peak of 503,998 in 1950 to 333,336 today, a loss of 170,000 people. Again, if the city captured 100% of just regional growth, in little more than a decade it would be back to a record high population. That’s not realistic of course, but 10% of that total, or 15,000 people, would still make a tremendous impact on the city. Like Indianapolis, there’s already some sign of an inflection point, as the city population began growing again in the 2000’s.
Can this 10% solution really happen? The answer is a resounding Yes, because it is already happening in Atlanta. Its reputation as a sprawlburg overshadows the fact that it is experiencing one of America’s most impressive urban core booms. The city of Atlanta has added almost 120,000 new residents since 2000, an increase of 28%. This is a mere 10.5% of the metro area’s growth during that time – but it has totally changed the city. Atlanta lost over 100,000 people from its 1970 peak, but is now at an all time high.
I know many people would love to see a more aggressive return to the city, and even view it as an imperative for environmental or other reasons. But just because it is desirable, doesn’t mean it is going to happen. The numbers just don’t add up for it, which you can read about in my piece.
Also, excessive rhetoric about the need for mass re-urbanization is actually counterproductive outside of those few cities where people are already primed to accept it. James Howard Kunstler comes to mind. Don’t get me wrong. I own some of his stuff and enjoy reading it. He’s a great writer and I enjoy a good screed as much as anyone from time to time. But he obviously has nothing but contempt for the suburbs and the people who live in them. Given that in most places in America, suburbanites are in the majority, and we need their votes for the Congressional and state action we have to have to reinvigorate our cities, I don’t think picking a fight is advisable. This sort of over the top writing or advocacy for change only scares people and lends itself to caricature as urban advocates wanting to force people back into overcrowded tenements and such, when I’m not aware that’s actually the case.
Again, if we can get more than 10%, great. I’m all for it. But I’d rather set a modest, realistically achievable target that we can hold ourselves and our leaders accountable for reaching than a pie in the sky vision of growth that isn’t likely outside of places like New York City. And in practice today, few cities are getting anywhere near 10% of regional growth in the urban core.
Obviously this only works if your region is growing. If you are stagnant or shrinking, you’ve got a bigger challenge on your hands. There the imperative is to restart the regional economic and demographic engine. Hopefully the core can play a role in doing that.