Cities overemphasize population as a measure of economic health and overall vitality. If the population is stable or growing, the logic goes, then certainly there must be enough amenities and jobs to explain why people are moving or at least staying. Population loss certainly is a bad sign, one difficult to explain away. But growing or stable population is not necessarily what it seems. If you want to get a sense of the direction an urban area is trending, look at changes over time in population density.

Why does that statistic matter more? Let's look at one of my favorite Rust Belt punching bags. Peoria, IL is a good example, but honestly you could choose from the lengthy list of declining Midwestern and Northeastern industrial cities and prove the same point.

In 1950 the Census recorded 111,856 people in the city proper; 2015 Census estimates were 115,070. If it seems surprising that a city often cited as an example of decline actually grew (slightly) since the often-cited base year of 1950, it is. A closer look at how it managed the feat reveals a serious underlying problem. In 1950 the city covered 12.9 square miles. In 2015, that figure exploded to 50.3 square miles. Population density, then, fell from 8671 per sq. mile to 2288.

That's staggering, but so what? The main problem is that urban infrastructure is expensive, and the more a city spreads out in an effort create the appearance of population growth or stability the more of that infrastructure it needs to provide. Roads, police and fire, utilities, sanitation, and any other costly function of modern urban governing become more difficult to provide over an ever expanding area with a declining number of taxpayers – individuals and businesses – to support them. Leaving aside the fact that economic opportunities in such cities almost inevitably are shrinking, each taxpayer becomes "responsible" for more and more infrastructure. That's not a great formula. Add in the fact that populations in these places almost inevitably become older and more impoverished over time and it's a disaster. Add in the current anti-government hysteria that makes even modest attempts to raise revenue a pitched battle and you have a place where you really don't want to live unless you can't afford to get out.

What happens next is predictable. Services get worse, costs are piled onto the remaining population that is least likely to be able to afford it, and lowest-bidder privatization farms out many essential tasks. The few remaining large employers in the area get to write their own ticket after threatening to leave, which often results in further reduced local tax revenues (through various breaks, loopholes, and handouts) and environmental degradation that no one dares try to make them clean up. Eventually the sense of decline becomes pervasive. Signs of crime and urban decay become widespread. Garbage piles up. Streets look like the Luftwaffe just bombed them. Aging water and sewerage systems fail. 9-1-1 calls go unanswered and fewer police are asked to deal with more crime spread over a greater area. Businesses shutter, and people with marketable skills take them to other places where things are not quite as bleak.

Despite the cottage industry of urban renewal and revitalization schemes, there's very little cities can do to reverse the slide into urban blight once the population density takes an appreciable drop. More accurately, there are some things they can do but hundreds of other dying and shrinking places trying to do those exact same things. Offering tax incentives to lure new businesses there? Great. So is everyone else. The end result is a sort of community-wide torpor, a "who gives a shit" mentality that sinks in after a couple years or decades of looking at empty buildings, driving over crumbling streets, and seeing visible poverty everywhere. Expectations fall and anger rises among people being asked to pay more for public services that seem to get worse every year. They seem to because they are.

If you're curious about where your favorite city is heading over the next 20 or 30 years, look at the historical trend in population density. If it declines consistently there's a good chance that great things are not on the horizon.

37 thoughts on “URBAN TORPOR”

  • Well aren't you a ray of sunshine?

    The counter to this is essentially most white collar jobs in the US can be done from anywhere. Whether NY or LA or the vast post-apocalyptic wasteland in between, most professional jobs are done staring at a glowing rectangle connected to the internet.

    Ideally, giant gasbag cities like SF, NYC, Chi-town, LA, and elsewhere should release their rent pressure that they've been building up. But gosh darn it, the only place new random business number googleplex that I'm too old to follow wants to start up in a "big city" where the networking and investing opportunities are greatest.

    Since we've devalued land so much and prioritized human contact, the logical solution should be to bulldoze the eyesores that dot the Fly-Over Country with impunity. But then local "historical value" society objects to Uncle Grumpa's Grocery Store being torn town, despite being vacant since Wyatt Earp visited the town.

    And of course, all of this goes back to how the interstate highway system and the car culture of the US continues to hold us back. Also the housing market, where everyone was promised a baronial two-story manor, along with the requisite one acre lawn to mow/water.

  • In my area, there are a couple of factors at work. One is the rightwing frothing mania of "Not one single penny of my tax dollars!" (oddly coupled with, "Waaaah, we had 2 inches of snow and someone had better come scrape the roads to my rural compound so I can drive my Hummer to Walmart and stock up on Doritos and beer!"). These folks don't see it as their responsibility for any sort of shared civic costs.

    Another is their carefully-curated (by their favored news media) terror of cities, which causes them to live a two-hour congested, bumper-to-bumper commute from work (often in another state they perceive as cheaper) lest they accidentally come in contact with a Scary Not-White Person.

    How do you counter that mentality? I'm not sure. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite because I moved to this state a bought a house in the 'burbs–in my own defense, it's only 6 miles from my house to my job, whereas a house in one of the nearby cities would triple that commute. However, when my kids were small, we had family memberships to the city zoo and aquarium and science center…and heard nothing but shock and horror from the commute-from-out-of-state folks. Just recently I needed craft supplies for a going-away party at work that I could only find at a tiny little mom&pop craft store just inside the city line, and when people asked about the supplies and heard I'd (gasp!) driven into the city for them, they reacted as if I'd told them I'd gone to Aleppo.

  • Colorado Springs, CO shut off a bunch of street lights in 2010–turned 'em back on in 2012.
    Part of the Interstate was dark for that duration.

    Why yes, the Springs is a right wing stronghold.

  • This is precisely what's happening to my home city of London, Ontario, Canada. The outskirts of the city are cluttered with half-built housing developments dotted with the occasional McMansion, offering houses for prices that are insane by local standards ($3-600K). Instead of fighting sprawl, we're embracing it with open arms. A lot of really good farmland is disappearing under these half-built wasteland subdivisions.

    You should see them; they look weird — they're just mostly-completed roads in odd patterns with street lights here and there, and then just bare earth (all the trees have been cut down, obviously), with the odd finished or half-finished McMansion here and there. And some people actually want to move to these places, but most don't.

    Meanwhile, we've got a city council that steadfastly resists raising taxes even a little bit, despite approximately 3% inflation over the last 15 years, which means we're now trying to operate a city that's much bigger on give or take 30% less money than we did in 2001. Insanity.

    I hope you don't mind if I use this argument (sprawl = more infrastructure = more cost to taxpayers) in a letter to the city, because I'm super-pissed about their "development" strategy.

  • I saw this process occur in E. Lansing MI as the city gobbled up former
    farmland to the north, building luxury condos for student housing until they reached the town of Bath & couldn't go any further. I don't think this course of action is possible here (eastern Massachusetts) since there is no land outside of a town boundary; our density can only go up, however slowly.
    Of course, we have all the other features mentioned: decaying empty mill buildings, decrepit town centers with furniture rental outlets, dollar stores & state government offices where there were once banks & hardware stores, scary residential areas where all the properties are owned by people in other states. Here our motto is ¿Quién da una mierda?

  • Spot on Ed, when I worked in Baltimore doing environmental sampling I would occasionally drive past buildings without roofs, buildings with collapsed roofs, burned out buildings, etc. You can see some from the train lines too. Anyway, one of the colllspsed roofs was a church, it looked exactly like an old war photo. It's probably still like that.

  • Great column! In my work I mostly focus on the economic effects of these trends, but this nails the psychological element too.

    Here's a great column about the economic side: http://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme

    Basically, since the 1950s American cities have invested in all of this expensive suburban infrastructure, but the long-term cost is so high that it depends on constant growth to sustain itself financially. It's not sustainable in itself; it needs growth to pay the bills. So W hen the inflow of new people and companies slows down, we simply can't afford the long-term liabilities of all this low-density development. It truly is a Pomzi scheme.

  • @Heisenberg — what makes it really sad and funny is that the people who desperately need growth to keep their local economies afloat are the ones who least want immigrants to move to their towns.

  • This American Life did an interview with a fine citizen of Colorado Springs last year about the streetlights. He literally paid $274 a year to keep the streetlight on in front of his house but when asked if he would pay that same $274 in taxes so everyone could have streetlights the response was "Hell no!".
    People like that don't realize they are living in a society anymore.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    I'd hate to be overly optimistic, but it does make us more powerful when we determine which local issues really matter and focus on those. Since I started volunteering with Abundant Housing LA, I've learned more about my own city than I had through years of solo exploring and reading. Some of the solutions to our ongoing livability crisis are head-on-desk obvious and wouldn't be so hard to affect if anyone save NIMBYs bothered to chime in.

  • Robert Walker-Smith says:

    Ed, you are making me feel lucky to be in Oakland CA.

    There are people who would be amused by that.

    My eldest brother, the college teacher of English, spent almost five years in Ohio before finding his golden ticket (a job offer in Santa Barbara). He has no fond memories of Ohio; from his description, I'm surprised they even had a college for him to work for.

  • It isn't that you are wrong about density, it is that what is more important is the wealth of the city. Houston is actually less densely populated than Detroit but it is far wealthier and is much better shape. In fact while people often lament Detroit's ruination on loss of population the city of Detroit is about the same size and density as Portland. But Portland's unemployment rate is a fraction of Detroit's.

  • I'm frustrated because I don't see a solution. Developers and homebuyers are not interested in improving areas that are already developed; and city councils look at dev fees and new property taxes as offsetting new infrastructure costs. Most state legislatures will not regulate along the lines of "all municipal boundaries are hereby frozen". So in a laissez-faire society, how do we redirect growth to increase density??

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    @Pete –

    In the case of Los Angeles, the short answer is development around light rail and a system of incentives for developers to build responsibly – stop building luxury condos exclusively, but don't stop building, period. It requires collaboration between developers, planners, and the government.


    It also requires some very slight tax hikes. I don't think it's at all compatible in a pure laissez-faire society of the sort that right-libertarians demand.

  • @Pete Gaughan: "Developers and homebuyers are not interested in improving areas that are already developed;"

    Not necessarily. I live in a large town/small city with very strict growth boundaries, our population is growing and there's a ton of re-development in town. It takes sensible zoning and a willingness to invest–we spent a fortune enhancing our riverfront, but it paid off in a revitalized downtown.

    Sure, developers love sprawl–compared to building in town, they get almost a free hand, and the city picks up a chunk of the infrastructure tab. But take that option away, and they'll still build, and there are plenty of buyers who don't care about an acre of lawn if they can live near a vibrant downtown.

  • A lot of people intuitively understand that certain cities are growing and others declining.

    It's important to realize that there are large self-reinforcing cycles at work. Booming cities can continually cut property taxes, which encourages booming. Busting cities must continually raise property taxes, which encourages busting.

    Booming cities SHOULD counteract the boom by keeping property taxes high, and save money for a rainy-day fund (perhaps state-run city insurance of a sort). But instead they almost always squander their free surplus. And busting cities SHOULD counteract the bust by cutting taxes, but they have no financial ability to do so and states don't help them out.

    The only advice for the public is that living in a booming city is infinitely better than a busting one. Taxes are lower, services better, jobs better, your house investment pays off easily making you a ton of money, everything is better. Do everything you can in life to avoid even the slightest hint of living in a busting city. Leave immediately.

  • One major problem when discussing these issues with conservatives is that they tend to think suburban sprawl is the "natural" or "free-market" outcome. Which means they view any effort by government to change these patterns as unjust interference in the market.

    Of course, this view ignores the fact that land use & development has NEVER been a free market – it is perhaps the most regulated sector of all. The suburban experiment was absolutely the result of choices we made, via decades of government policies and incentives.

    These suburban conservatives seem conflate the lifestyle THEY want (more sprawl/less density) with what everyone else wants. And admittedly, in the early decades of suburbia, this may have been what most people wanted. But as we've seen the costs of the suburban lifestyle continue to pile up (traffic, infrastructure costs, etc.) today in 2016 we see MANY fewer people who want that pattern to continue.

    And this is what underlies the urban housing crisis across the US: low supply and high demand. Large numbers of people want housing close to downtowns, but the market simply isn't providing it – due to NIMBYism and old-fashioned development codes that continue to encourage car dependence.

    When confronted with this, ideological conservatives tend to castle back to "liberal regulations" (e.g. environmental laws) as being the real cause of high housing prices. But that's talking-point bullshit. Anyone who understands basic economics knows that the underlying forces of supply and demand have a MUCH larger effect on price than any regulations.

    As many have already pointed out, it doesn't NEED to be this way. The market is already ahead of us in wanting better, more sustainable development patterns. We have a huge toolbox of policy solutions and case studies on how to fix things. We just need some leadership.

  • On the other hand Manhattan's population density has fallen a lot in large part because families have gotten smaller.

  • One of Ed's favorite punching bags, Cleveland, is currently straining towards boom by investing in downtown living space- converting empty offices into high-end apartments to try to reduce the waiting list (!!!) of applicants to live in them.
    Of course much of the old white people population of the area remains horribly racist and totally bought in on white flight justifications, but them kids don't give a shit. It would be nice to see some affordability too, but oh shut your liberal mouth!

  • It's simply wrong that white collar jobs can be done from anywhere. That was what people thought in the naive days before we had a lot of experience with telecommuting. I manage software developers, and every experience I've had with teams in multiple locations has been a nightmare. It's hugely expensive in terms of time and attention to keep people on task when they're not in the same office. I'm currently advocating to relocate or fire all my off site developers, because I could replace them with 1/3 as many locals and get the same results.

  • @Rustonite; I have the complete opposite experience. I am a software developer working on a team that sit in the same open-office shoebox, surrounded by literally about 90 other teams that do other things. We just got a new boss who runs from his walled, windowed office into our open shoebox every three minutes to demand to know what we're doing that-very-second (I'm always tempted to snap, "Getting interrupted by you AGAIN."). We have a schedule and we have measurable deadlines–it's no mystery how we're doing, but being forced to sit in the same location as the boss means that it takes us ten times as long to get anything done because we're constantly being interrupted to justify our employment.

  • @Katydid, rustonite

    My wife works from home and manages remote teams spread over about 10+ states. Most of her people work in labs, but some work from home or remotely. She has found that while some people can be trusted to work from home, a large number of people "work" from home instead of getting daycare or don't get anything done. OTOH, she finds she gets more done working at home because she's spared the constant interruptions of working in an office.

    I had this same debate during grad school, when many people found it was great to work from home… while they were working on their class work. My dumb ass had to do school work after I put in my 10-12 hour day at the store and took care of the kids. I'd say it depends on the team and the people and the nature of the work. Bosses who micro-manage their employees drag down their teams, but some people are able to coast along getting paid to do very little. I think it was Yahoo that got rid of their work-from-home policy when they discovered they had dozens of employees who "worked" from home and really didn't do anything but they had been assigned to teams, etc., for so long that no one bothered to supervise or assign them anything.

    Working from home is an ideal that only works if you actually have people who can be trusted to work unsupervised.

  • "This is precisely what's happening to my home city of London, Ontario, Canada. The outskirts of the city are cluttered with half-built housing developments dotted with the occasional McMansion, offering houses for prices that are insane by local standards ($3-600K). Instead of fighting sprawl, we're embracing it with open arms. A lot of really good farmland is disappearing under these half-built wasteland subdivisions."

    That's really strange. One of the things that attracted me to London (before I moved away for work) was that the city itself had tons of incredibly affordable, beautiful old homes that were within walking distance of anything downtown. I hadn't lived in anything comparable before, and haven't since.

  • I live in a city that has a tax rate of $13.75/K (assessed valuation) AND $275.00/Qtr water&sewer. Property values here are low so the bite looks bigger. Next town over has a tax rate that is about 30% of what we pay and they bit about it a lot.

  • I live in a coastal town a few miles down the coast from San Francisco. We have a bond measure on the ballot to fund the construction of a new library. We currently have two small branch libraries that we can't afford to keep open seven days a week. Closing them and consolidating into one facility would allow us to have a library available every day of the week. Plus we wouldn't be stuck in two small run-down locations. The town is overwhelmed with people complaining that we need to pave the roads, therefore, we shouldn't build a library. If it wasn't the library, they'd be resisting something else.

    This being California, it takes 2/3 of the vote to raise taxes, so I'm looking forward to having two small, crappy libraries forever.

  • Let's not forget the role Federal taxes played back in the post-war growth period. The primary way the rich avoided taxes (one of their overriding priorities) was through charitable contributions, which financed many our our local libraries, museums, etc. And a lot of that tax money was redistributed back to the states, and in turn the local governments, to pay for highways, schools, and other infrastructure. This had not just a local effect, but resulted in a general improvement in our lifestyles nationally. Without that largess to distribute, the country has fragmented into local pockets whose spending depends entirely on policies that can be much more easily influenced by a smaller number of people, who may all worship at the shrine of Ayn Rand. The rich now avoid taxes the old fashioned way, by buying their local legislators– which is much cheaper than paying for a Senator.

  • @Khaled; agree with you that work only works…if it's worked. We have several college-aged "interns" in my office who spend all day doing their schoolwork. They're in the office roughly 30 hours a week getting paid to do their schoolwork. They're all "children of bigshots", so nothing can be done about it on a team level.

    On the other hand, I'm on the train today headed to a customer site, actually getting more done than I would in the office because nobody is constantly bothering me.

  • @Heisenberg – you nailed it re: assuming everyone should live in the burbs. Seattle currently has a 54 billion ballot initiative to build new suggest lines, and the conservative response is absurd. "No one wants it but taker liberals who want to spend everyone else's money". "Subways and bike lanes?! Why don't those assholes drive to work like Americans?" It doesn't matter how many stats you present; they just hate paying for someone else's benefit, and don't see any of the other infrastructure cost they rely on as any kind of burden. But if you want to extend service on a popular pedestrian ferry line

  • Emerson Dameron says:


    SMDH. Prop 13 must be the ultimate example of boomers pulling up the ladders as they fly out of Saigon. It made CA safe for hardcore NIMBY ideas such as LA's own Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which would literally stop all development for two years While We Figure Out What Is Going On.

  • On the subject of teleworking…it can work very well or it can be a disaster. It depends on how it's managed.

    On the central thesis of this post – I've never heard Columbus, OH mentioned in glowing terms but it's also not a poster child for urban failure. Sometime in the 1980s it went through massive geographic expansion by annexing a bunch of suburbs. That almost certainly lowered its population density (because suburbs are almost always less dense than cities) but I'm not sure it would be described as a city in serious decline. Population density is a useful metric, probably more useful than total population, but there's not a perfect correlation between it and urban failure.

    I'm not sure the underlying reason, but in the past 30-40 years larger cities seem to have gained an economic advantage over smaller cities and towns that didn't used to be there. I mean, you look at some towns that are in abject decline these days and you can tell by the beautiful homes slowly falling into disrepair that they once were very prosperous, and that the prosperity wasn't based on tourism. They had some kind of well paying industry that died. I used to visit Warren, PA a lot because my dad had older relatives there. Once upon a time it was a prosperous burg but these days it's in serious decline. I doubt anything will ever resurrect it. These days the only smaller towns and cities that do well seem to be the ones that can rely on tourism or a local college to keep them afloat.

  • @TakomaMark; my spouse is from a town in rural far-upstate New York. In 1900 there were roughly 60,000 people living there, and the town boasted several good-paying jobs including a furniture factory and several large farms, plus they had the Erie Canal on one side of town and the railroad running through the middle to move goods around. Even as late as the 1970s, they had the furniture factory, Heinz Ketchup factory, Fisher-Price toy factory, a tire-making factory, a blowtorch-making company, some sort of nut processing plant, a slaughterhouse, and an apple cold-storage place. Then they all left for cheaper labor and less taxes.

    In 2015 there were a little over 5,000 people, mostly elderly. The town used to have three grocery stores–now everyone has to drive out of town to the Hell-mart that set up shop on former farmland. The dollar store downtown closed up–when a population can't afford to shop at a dollar store, you know the town's in dire straits.

  • @Katydid – I grew up in Michigan and the same thing has happened to the smaller towns there, in many parts of PA and NY, and pretty much all over. My home town of Grand Rapids, MI has fared much better – in fact it seems to be prospering after a tough patch from approximately 2000-2009. Grand Rapids is not a huge city like Chicago, or even the DC area, but it's the State's second largest city and seems to be just big enough to have the critical mass necessary to enable it to continue to grow rather than decline. Any metro area smaller than about a quarter of a million though, unless it's near a tourist attraction or has a university, seems to be well and truly screwed. It didn't used to be that way and I'm not sure there's anything inevitable about the phenomenon but sans any public policy intervention to change the trajectory most of those towns are going to die out.

  • I live in Oswego, NY. We have a SUNY campus with around 7,000 undergrad and some postgrad programs. We also have 3 nukes, an 800 Mw gas co-Gen and an ancient oil burner with Riley tall stacks. Other than that, nothing of importance.

    When it looked like one of the nukes, owned by entergy, was going to go out of business the same republican controlled county government that screams about the bums on welfare fell all over themselves to get the nuclear industry about $8b in tax credits, over the next decade or wo: http://www.allianceforagreeneconomy.org/content/groups-criticize-“nuclear-mistake”-amid-praise-new-york-state’s-clean-energy-standard.

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