At a workshop in Peoria last March, an attendee told me that the city has more than doubled in land area since 1930, yet the number of people living there has remained relatively flat.
I found the statistic shocking for what it represented, and now I realize, it’s probably not uncommon. I scoured the internet to learn exactly how much land Peoria claimed in 1930, and she was not willing to give up her secrets. If I recall correctly, the city consisted of less than 20 square miles at the time. At the same time, the city boasted a population of just under 105,000. Today, Peoria occupies 50 square miles and has a population of just about 110,000.
Over the course of 90 years, the city more than doubled in size, geographically speaking, and has remained almost stagnant in terms of population. So the population density of Peoria has gone from 5250 people per square mile in 1930, to a population density is 2200 people per square mile today. The same number of people are taking up more than twice as much space!
How can this be good? I mean that. What is a single benefit from the same number of people, more than doubling the amount of space that they occupy? Personally, if I doubled the amount of space I required, I would be concerned, unhappy and hunting for huge pants. It is such a stark example of the types of growth policies that have absolutely ravaged our cities over the past century. Again, what is the upside of a city taking up twice as much land?
Imagine if a restaurant decided to double its tables, but didn’t add a single new customer. Imagine a movie theater doubling its seating, but not selling any additional tickets. As a business owner, if I doubled my expenses, but didn’t substantially increase my revenue, I would be looking for bridges to live under. This type of growth is unsustainable, inefficient and generally ugly. It isn’t cost effective, it hasn’t improved residents lives and it didn’t double the amount of taxes collected by the municipality.
There is simply no upside to this unchecked expansion, yet this type of growth has been standard municipal policy in most areas of the country for decades. I don’t get it. I was in my hometown a couple of weeks ago and witnessed much of the same. The downtown and traditional neighborhoods were hollowed out. Blocks with only a couple of houses, downtown blocks with only a couple of buildings. The historic core looked like something from a post-apocalyptic movie. Where the city used to exist in its entirety, was barely there anymore. Yet, once you get out to the edges, new neighborhoods were going up everywhere. It’s madness!
People are continuing to develop around the core of something that barely exists. At that point, what are you even a suburb of? It just seems like such a failure to understand the basic principles of cities and people. People want to be close to other people, we are hardwired to be social and depend on human interaction. Just because people have adjusted to suburban life and may claim that they couldn’t stand more density, doesn’t mean their rhetoric should shape land-use policy.
America is not home to the world’s first generation of people that don’t want to be around other people. It’s more the fact that being isolated is changing them. Spreading out, is simply not making anything better.
So I ask again, what is the upside of doubling the size of a city, without adding an additional person? There simply isn’t a good answer.
I can tell you what the downside is though:
Double the cost of building and maintaining roads
Double the cost of police and fire
Increasing national retailers and hurting local businesses
Decreasing the sense of community
Increased commute times
Lack of walkability
And on and on. There are probably another hundred reasons why this is bad policy. These changes will make a city worse.
Density works, density is best for a city, density is even really good for people. A city is healthier when people live close together, people are healthier when people live close together. The struggles Peoria was dealing with, and most every other city for that fact, is trying to counteract the effects of terrible land-use policy. Cities need to stop growing out and start growing up.