Pete Saunders has an interesting column in Governing talking about Chicago as a model for growth. He notes that cities like Chicago and New York made big moves during their hyper-growth phases that ultimately set the stage for them to become what we know today. Sunbelt cities, he argues, should take note:
That’s what today’s rapid-growth Sun Belt regions such as Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Houston, Nashville and Phoenix need to do. Like Chicago, they need to utilize their periods of impressive growth to invest in themselves as livable regions. Many have largely been reliant on the white-hot nature of economic sectors like tech and finance over the last 40 years, or on fueling the development of inexpensive single-family homes. But as these metros become larger and their regional economies diversify and mature, they’ll need to address challenges typically associated with our nation’s older metros. How will they combat road congestion and move people and goods efficiently through their region? How will they develop a housing stock at the regional and local scale that meets the needs of today’s renters, first-time buyers, upsizers and downsizers?
This is exactly right. When you are in a growth phase, it seems like you can do no wrong. In fact, most of your effort is spent just keeping up with growth by building schools, etc. The long term question is what moves you are making to position yourselves for the future.
Great cities understand that what got you to your current level won’t get you to the next level. If we want to keep moving up, individually or as cities, we have to figure out how to reinvent ourselves for the next level.
Some of the Sunbelt cities like Dallas have taken a traditional approach. Dallas has invested heavily in a performing arts district, for example. Many Sunbelt growth stories have put cash into upgrading their arts offerings. In a previous generation, Dallas and Ft. Worth built DFW airport, which became the mega-hub we know today. More dubiously, Dallas built an expensive but poorly patronized light rail system.
In a previous era, it was heroic water supply engineering feats, building the railroads, etc. This generation’s challenges are likely to be different. Some combination of governance/institutional changes, infrastructure, and economic transformation are probably needed. We won’t know for sure whether these places to it right until their growth phase comes to an end. But the bets they take now will help determine what happens when that time does finally come.