Thinking Critically About “Growth”

No matter where you live, no matter what part of the country you call home, the leaders of your community are probably talking about growth.  You know, that word that has a million meanings, but is always expressed as if it only has one?

And that’s where I want to begin.  The word growth can mean a myriad of different things to different people, and it comes with an enormous set of variables that need to be included with these meanings that define its reach and impact.  Yet typically when we speak or listen to someone talk about growth in our communities, we think of two things; population and economic expansion.

The problem with this oversimplification is that we are likely to accept growth as a blanket statement of positivity, as if every step forward is a good one, regardless of the direction.  To talk about growth in this manner is like saying you drove 200 miles but neglected to include variables like where, how fast, and for what reason.  Perhaps a more accurate metaphor might be, if my height and weight started to grow, but my vital organs stayed the same size, this would likely lead to severe health issues.  Or, if I were to add to my group of close friends, I could talk about growth as the number of new people in my life… but if those people commonly exhibit unhealthy behaviors, they may be more detrimental than beneficial to me.  Just because there is growth, or more of something, or an increase in one area doesn’t mean that these additions are healthy.

Photo Aug 08, 10 51 26 PM
College Town in Rochester is an attempt at “Manufactured Urbanism” or the attempted injection of urban-style building into an area that might not be ready to receive it

My favorite way to explain unhealthy urban growth through steroids.  Like the effect they have on the body, many “growth” supplements in our cities today contribute to immediate expansion, but have the ability to do tremendous damage to our urban fabric in the long term and on a broad scale.  Massive expenditures in an area that isn’t ready for it can destroy a neighborhood, creating gentrification and displacing people that can no longer afford to live there.  Throwing large amounts of money at an area that has been growing incrementally is what I call “manufactured urbanism,” which can create unsustainable “money islands”  that so often fail because the neighborhood is not ready or willing to accept “high-end” amenities.  Finally, growth in a few neighborhoods paired with the simultaneous decline in others (perhaps even one may cause the other) is extremely dangerous in polarizing communities and creating rifts within our urban cores.  This can lead to social and economic upheaval and extreme resentment.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t embrace growth our communities.  We have to move our cities in a positive direction or we stagnate.  Many who hear the views expressed above believe this line of thinking is “obstructionism,” but in reality it is the rejection of the notion that any form of growth is positive.  It is the reality that we must start to think critically about the complex components of healthy growth and what that requires instead of blindly accepting growth as a directionless, one-dimensional buzz word used by those who wish to coerce a population into seeing a movement as positive.

What do we want to grow?  At what speed do we want growth to occur?  Should it be market driven or dictated to us?  Should we simply see growth as economic and population-centered, or can we also see it as expressions of culture, diversity, local pride, overall community health and happiness, environmental, incremental, sustainable… I could go on and on.  The important thing to remember any time we hear the word “growth” is that it must be followed by a specific explanation of all the key variables that clarify this vague description.

Let’s get excited about the intelligent analysis of growth in our communities.  Let’s look at the big picture when we talk about investments in expansion.  Let’s make sure that pockets of our cities aren’t being left behind as we grow in other areas.  Let’s take a broad, long term, holistic and human view of what growth really means to our urban centers today.