Load balancing our cities
On macroeconomic forces, the original EPCOT vision, and what to do with America's fastest-shrinking counties
Some people fantasize about moving off the grid and living in far-secluded areas, and a few even do it. But humans are social creatures by our nature, and the latest Census data on county-level population estimates only serves to underscore what our instincts already tell us. Counties with a lot of people are mostly growing and counties with few are mostly shrinking. Americans are continuing to cluster together.
■ Many factors contribute to any individual family's choice to live in a particular location, but one of the biggest and most irresistible forces behind many of those choices is the basic matter of finding economic opportunities. As an economy matures, it typically evolves from a dependence on agriculture to a stage in which manufacturing comes first, and ultimately settles into dominance by services as it reaches advanced development. So it was for the United States, and so it tends to go for almost all other countries. We're not unusual in this regard; we're like everybody else.
■ Whereas agriculture depends upon spreading out, manufacturing depends on getting workers into the same place (usually at the same time). But so does lots of service work. It's possible, of course, for some services to be rendered remotely. Technology often reduces the friction involved in making that happen. But there are some limits that are hard to overcome: You might get the Mayo Clinic to give you a remote consultation, but if you need surgery, you're probably headed to Rochester.
■ Many services can only be delivered in person. Many more benefit from work by tightly-integrated teams. And many of the institutions that deliver services succeed by developing distinctive cultures that are reinforced by getting participants to commit to experiences in common. Thus, at least from an economic perspective, no matter how service-based the US economy becomes (and we're much more service-based than most people intuitively realize), there will still be lots of factors driving us to cluster together in ever-larger urban areas.
■ What that spells for smaller areas -- like the counties with fewer than 10,000 people, 61% of which shrank last year -- is a compelling need to determine how to competently manage resources in the face of sustained population decline. It's not a pleasant condition to have to grapple with, but decline isn't the same as elimination.
■ Some will escape population decline, if they make conscious choices to do so. But that requires having something special to offer that fits the right need at the right time. Las Vegas has exploded over the last 50 years, but there's no demand for 100 copycat cities. On the other hand, there are lots of cities with municipal governments and infrastructure already in place that could withstand a great deal of growth without losing what makes them special to their incumbent residents.
■ There's a reason utopian cities are rarely built successfully from scratch -- even great visionaries are prone to overestimating their capacities to plan what real people will actually choose when it comes to where they live. Note that lots of people live in Orlando today, but the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow didn't actually take off. But finding the right places for big ideas and big growth to take off from places that are much smaller than their potential could turn out to be a very useful pursuit indeed.
Neat rides, but not many people actually live there