So a few weeks ago the US Census Bureau released their most current county population estimates. Armed with that information it only took about 5 minutes to tabulate the population growth of the Louisville Metropolitan Statistical Area between 2000 and July 1, 2006. Since 2000, the Louisville MSA has grown about 5.1% to around 1,222,000 people - or so they say. That is the addition of something like 60,000 people in 6 years. That ain't too bad I suppose, especially when you look at the absolute stagnation of the Louisville area just within my lifetime during the 1980's.
But when you look other regional cities, Louisville's growth looks pretty meager. Columbus grew by 7.0%, Indianapolis by 9.2%, Nashville grew by 10.9% , and Raleigh by an amazing 24.8%. Heck, the US grew by over 6% in the 6 year time period, and Louisville couldn't even match that!
So around this time of year is when the high growth cities all pound their chests about how great they're doing, while the slow growth cities hang their heads in shame and bemoan all their mistakes and lost opportunities. Nearly every major newspaper in the South and Midwest have carried stories about their cities growth - or lack thereof - and why they think it's happening.
There is a lot of self-congratulation by cities that are experiencing huge booms in population. I mean, if your city has grown by 25% in only 6 years, this must be an amazing place to live! One example of this is Raleigh. I had the pleasure of visiting Raleigh in summer 2005 - and the place was BOOMING. Every highway interchange had a new mall popping up complete with upscale chain restaurants and midrise condos. Raleigh has things that Louisville - a markedly larger city - doesn't even have. I went to Raleigh wanting to hate the place - I left not personally wanting to live there, but at least understanding the draw of the city. It is incredibly lush and green, it has amazing universities, tons of high paying job opportunities, and low crime and traffic. This perfect storm of ingredients has created a city as desirable and hot as Raleigh right now - and who knows when that will cool. But I look at a population gain of nearly 200,000 people in such a short time and I cannot help but wonder when Raleigh will hit the tipping point of being too big, crowded, et cetera, and will not be the "in vogue" city of the era. I always think that when you grow at such a fast pace you lose many of the qualities that drew people to you in the first place.
Raleigh is an extreme example of growth, so lets take a place that is a little bit more down to earth and that I know almost as well as I do my hometown - Indianapolis. I lived in Central Indiana for the better part of decade - and much of that time was spent working and playing in Indianapolis. (I lived in West Lafayette, Bloomington, and Franklin and I worked on East Washington Street in Indianapolis)
Indianapolis clocked in with an impressive growth rate of 9.2%. As is expected with those sorts of growth numbers, many residents of Indianapolis pointed to that as a badge of honor in showing how much better they're doing than the rest of the Midwestern US. And rightfully so. Indianapolis really is doing a heck of a better job in population growth and economic development than nearly all other Midwestern competitor cities. There is, however, a fallacy that nearly all high-growth cities fall prey to: and that is that they're genuinely better cities than the places around them that are growing at a more modest pace.
I have no quantifiable data to back up anything beyond this point, so you can take it with a grain of salt and I won't care in the least. After spending years of my life in Central Indiana I really saw a population of people that felt honestly superior to it's neighbors based largely on a growth rate. I saw and heard it continuously in nearly every form of media in Indianapolis, and in the people I would meet. If I wasn't in the car listening to radio stations that played, "world-class rock for a world-class city" I was watching WTHR do a story extolling the virtues of Hamilton County for passing a new benchmark in suburban growth or reading a Star story about how much better Indianapolis was than Columbus, Ohio - and population growth is always a central issue to that. It is as if Indianapolis, and other high growth metros, believe they are better simply because they're building more suburbs.
On the flip side, Louisville has as definite chip on it's shoulder about it's seeming lack of population growth in compared to others. Growth comes slow, and jobs don't seem as plentiful. Despite the size of Louisville, people don't hear much positive about the city's growth, and hence, they have less esteem in the direction of the city. To Americans today, the greatness of your city is measured in how far up the interstate you can get your suburbs to sprawl, and less in how solid you can build your central city. When you ask a Louisvillian which city is doing better, Louisville or Indianapolis, I would bet 4 out of 5 would pick the city 100 miles north on I-65. And their two reasons would be sports teams and a faster growth rate.
Personally, I would be that 1 in 5 person who would say Louisville is doing better than Indianapolis. And it is because I value reviving the central core more than building more suburbs. I would pick Louisville for things like Museum Plaza and RiverPark Place. Museum Plaza would never, not ever, get anywhere in Indianapolis. Louisville will build it starting this Fall. RiverPark Place is a whole master planned community of riverfront condo towers that is currently under construction. Add that to smaller projects like the Glassworks Tower, the Iron Quarter, and the soon to be announced expansion of Fourth Street Live into the parking lot behind the Marriott. In a few short years downtown Louisville will be a real rival to downtown Indianapolis.
Louisville is also continuing to stabilize the neighborhoods directly south and east of downtown. The neighborhoods of central Indianapolis seem to be either stagnant or regressing - with few exceptions, and all of which are very, very near to downtown. The dreaded "east side" isn't getting better, but only getting worse. Crime is escalating to record levels in many parts of the city, and the citizens of Marion County have to deal with a public school system that rivals the worst in the Midwest. Compare that to Louisville where the "west end" crime problem is definitely a drag on the city, but not near the levels of inner city Indianapolis. Jefferson County Public Schools are lauded for excellence in urban education, and affluent families choose public schools for the great magnet programs that are provided.
In terms of suburban growth, Indianapolis wins, hands down. And if that is what you want (which most Americans do) then Indianapolis will seems like a better fit. Personally, I find the urban developments in Louisville of higher quality, and hence, it is a better match for me.
I didn't mean for this to turn into a versus comparison, but to use the two cities as two examples on opposite sides of the growth coin - Indianapolis with a high growth rate, and huge booms in suburban development and a declining urban county and Louisville, with a slow growth rate, modest suburban growth, and a stabilizing urban county.
Many times perception is reality, so the fact that Indianapolis (or insert almost any city here) is growing faster than Louisville will make people think that place is inherently better, despite the fact that I would argue that Jefferson County is doing generally better than Marion County.
In a long, roundabout way, I wanted to simply make the point that higher growth rates do not imply a better city or standard of living. For some people, a high-growth city may seem more exciting and better for them, but give me an old, slow growth city like Louisville any day of the week.