Better, Not Bigger

May 10, 2024

Last week I spent a couple of days with the Civic Pride Campaign team in Marshalltown, Iowa.  We spent those 3 days discussing our strategies for their year long effort to combat community apathy. We were getting deep into the weeds on various facets of community development, revitalization and cultivating pride when one of the team members asked for my thoughts on growth. More specifically, are cities wise to adopt policies that seek to grow the population, jobs and investment.

Emphatically, no.

This is probably the most commonly adopted strategy local leaders deploy as a means to make their mark and improve their community, but on its own, growth for growth sake is a failed policy. The problem is that all growth is not created equal. The generalization that all growth is good completely fails to consider the various ways in which a community can grow.

As I love doing, let’s compare communities to the people that inhabit them. If I suggested that you as an individual would be better off if you grew, you might have some questions, and rightly so. If I was more specific and stated that you would be better off if you increased your weight, you might have a clearer idea of what I am getting at.

Eating garbage food and being sedentary is the easiest path for a person to grow, but we all know that such growth is quite unhealthy. We don’t need to be fitness experts to understand that this behavior would have seriously negative impacts on the health of an individual. Simultaneously, a person could increase their weight by strength training and eating a higher protein diet. Muscle increases are shown to increase metabolism, bone density and lead to an overall higher quality of life. A person could grow fatter or more muscular, but we would never equate the two as being the same.

Carrying the food analogy a little further, suggesting all growth is good, is comparable to suggest that all food is healthy and that everything a person eats is beneficial to their bodies. Obviously, this is preposterous as we know only certain foods are good for people. While I understand nachos and Miller Lite to be an epicurean delight, I am not under any impression that consuming them will bring about any sort of bodily improvement.

When it comes to food and our health, we are discerning when we think about growth, we understand that there is more nuance to the subject. Simply put, the specifics are what matters, not just the act in general. So of course this is the same with our cities. ‘Growth for growth’s sake’ policies have been at the heart of making many of our cities barely habitable and all while giving no acknowledgement to the notion of quality, which is absurd.

Not all growth is good, and far from it. Quality is the crucial component to consider, because just like a person, a community can expand without ever improving. In fact, when a city or town grows without giving credence to quality, they are most likely declining. Paving new roads does not make a community better, increasing the number of national chains does not make a community better, building more auto-centric vinyl subdivisions does not make a community better. Yet, these are all economic development policies that most places adhere to.

These are growth strategies, not improvement strategies and blindly adhering to growth policies is insane. A city or town should strive to improve, who cares about “growth” if it doesn’t make anyone’s lives better? In fact, who does all this sprawl expansion actually benefit in the end, except for national chains and national builders? I don’t know of any cheap ugly buildings that have made me better off. I am unaware of any fast food joints that have made my neighborhood stronger. And I have never seen a single example of sprawl development making a community more self-reliant, sustainable or resilient.

It is beyond time we abandoned growth policies and adopt improvement policies. We should want our places to get better, not just bigger. Bigger does nothing to improve the lives of residents, but better always does. This doesn’t have to be overly complicated either, it just takes a little bit of thought on the part of decision makers. All initiatives, strategies, policies and efforts should be viewed through a prism of quality. Will this development make the community prettier? Will this new neighborhood make the city stronger? Will this new piece of legislation make the town more self-reliant?

We as individuals are the sum total of our decisions. The more good decisions we make in our lives, the better off we are. Each day when we make choices about how we spend our time and energy, we have the opportunity to improve or decline. A city or town is no different. Our places are the sum total of those decisions and every time another decision is made that eschews quality, our places get worse and our lives grow a little sadder. So if you happen to be in a position in your community to bring about change, I beg you, for the sake of your residents and yourself, abandoned growth policies and adopt improvement policies, because your town should get better, not bigger.

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