Gary W. McDonogh, Helen Herrmann Professor and Chair of the Growth and Structure of Cities Department, is among the experts to contribute to a Wallethub piece on America's fastest-growing cities. Wallethub has permitted us to reprint McDonogh's answers to their questions about the challenges faced by these cities.
What are the biggest challenges faced by cities experiencing rapid population growth?
- For millennials, cities have been defined by growth, sometimes slow and sometimes precipitous—but in most cases a healthier sign than depopulation. These surges speak to multiple kinds of underlying stimulus—immigration, industrialization, even public health successes that reduce mortality. And rapidity is relevant—even the dramatic expansions of industrial cities in the U.S. or sprawling suburban regions pale beside, say, Hong Kong that grew from a depressed wartime population of 600,000 to a 1961 population of more than three million, swelled by refugees from China, which was met with a commitment to public housing and education that changed the city. Or Shenzhen, which grew from a sprawling area of 300,000 in the 1990s to a megacity of 10,000,000 today with both planning and some interesting grassroots alternatives. American cities can/must learn from these.
- But the challenges are always the same: housing, feeding, teaching, moving, and keeping a population healthy in a manner that is just, inclusive, and sustainable. All of which can be planned with analysis (including listening to those who live in a place and those moving in), negotiation, and planning beyond the current crisis. Not all of which will be selected by governments or interested groups.
- Planning for rapid growth only works if people who profit pay the bill beforehand. Take parks or transportation—it is much easier to lay these out before development. But if individual developers can profit from every square inch and then leave for another greenfield development, it will cost others a fortune later to acquire land for shared goods.
What should be the key priority for local authorities who want to grow their cities?
Envisioning the future as concretely as possible even as they respond to the present creatively and inclusively. Building cheap housing in a flood plain because it is accessible or easy is not an answer. Building acceptable housing that people will move through in times of crisis is better.
And building better housing to replace that over time improves the situation. But envisioning what a productive sustainable community may look like and acting on immediate pieces is best.
Consider parks and public spaces. Paving a lot and calling it a pocket park is cheap but often does little. If we invest more in building spaces people like, neighbors and others will go there, changing the city—Barcelona’s public space policy, while not promoting population growth per se has certainly promoted growth in quality of life. And has promoted new developments for the future.
Should local authorities do more to ensure current residents aren’t “priced out” of established neighborhoods in the face of population growth? What are good models for supporting gentrification without displacing residents?
Growth and planning should not hurt people. To stabilize neighborhoods in times of rapid change, we need creative anchors for them to stay and share—economic, social, and cultural. Chinatowns provide exemplary models; while many cities have completely wiped out important Chinatowns in their early locations (e.g.. Los Angeles, Sydney, Paris), Chinese migrants and their descendants have built new places.
Often, the anchor for the growth of global centers has been ownership of land by Chinese associations (sometimes forced by-laws as in the U.S. that kept Chinese-born residents from owning property).
It is much harder to displace people when the title is shared or unclear. Collective ownership by land trusts, shared investments by churches or civic groups. and other purposeful strategies to share increased value over time will work. And many a shantytown in Latin America has simply relied on multiple heirs tied up in courts over generations unable to resolve ownership to sell!
To what extent are zoning policies and “NIMBY-ism” responsible for skyrocketing housing costs in cities experiencing population growth?
Zoning can certainly eliminate cheap housing. But it can also encourage integrated units like shophouses or foster units that serve poor or elderly populations. Zoning is a tool even if those who use it are often powerful or have access to specialized knowledge and capital. But in this case, inequality is at fault, not the tools people use to exploit it.
NIMBYism is even more unclear in an age of social media, where many opinions swirl and change.
Again, I would look for who profits even more than how they do so.
Are entrepreneurship and employment opportunities disproportionately better in cities that are growing quickly? How so?
I am sure people are available to cogently argue both sides, as needed and funded. Still, millions of people have built lives for themselves and their families creating businesses in squatter settlements, refugee camps, declining neighborhoods, and even dying cities. Yes, more jobs will be created in larger areas but that would seem to be a question of scale more than intrinsic causality
Should we expect to see a reshaping of large cities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., migration of families towards suburbs, repurposing open-air spaces, redesigning high-density areas)?
Plagues, famines, natural disasters, and wars have always reshaped cities, but we should not underestimate the attraction and resilience of urban spaces. Suburbs appear safe but we have had generations to understand their limits as well. Certainly, our sense of reward and risk can normalize the possibilities of spending different phases of life in different spaces. But we must hope that COVID-19 will be brought under control, even in the U.S.
Just as other diseases carried in water or exacerbated by contaminants have been overcome. In the 19th century industrial cities Engels described, people died from cholera, tuberculosis, and hunger but the city survived and improved.
I would hope people do not make social distance a norm. Meanwhile, the life that has erupted in semi-public spaces like closed streets in New York has made neighborhoods feel lively in a new way. If we cannot go to indoor movies, we can do urban “drive-ins” and we can do them after the pandemic as well. COVID-19 also taught us to look at and even care for our neighbors in new ways that can also enhance the city—and the suburbs. I have lived on my suburban street for 25 years, but never did we gather to celebrate graduations or birthdays as “community” events before. Perhaps they will do something when we finally get to move to the city (NYC) where my wife and I want to live through our retirement.
Read the full article, including responses from several other experts, at Wallethub.