David Lehman, Governor Ned Lamont’s economic development chief, recently proposed that Connecticut’s objective should be to double the population of its cities in 25 years. The notion begs so many questions that I may write a few essays about it.
Let’s start with the most basic question: Really? Are they serious? This state is losing population, at least in the last ten years, and we should plan to double urban population in the next 25? To his credit, Lehman pointed out that doubling in 25 years is only a compound annual growth rate of 3.5% a year, a number that at least seems more doable. Hartford has about 122,000 people; increasing by 3.5% initially would require 5,000 new residents every year.
Where will those people live? Five thousands new residents would require at least 1000 housing units. According to the Hartford Courant, Hartford added 1360 apartments over the last five years – 1000 a year would require Hartford to build four times faster. It’s hard to imagine that kind of sustained building boom in Hartford.
Look at what doubling means in terms of population density: Hartford currently has about 6700 people per square mile. Doubling would mean about 13,500 people per square mile. That would make Hartford among the most densely populated larger cities in the United States – as of 2010, only New York City and San Francisco crammed more people per square mile inside their city limits. No metropolitan area in the United States whose size is similar to greater Hartford has a core city with population exceeding 7,000. The bottom line is that doubling the population of Hartford would create a grotesquely over-populated enclave surrounded by bucolic suburbs.
The numbers are out of whack, of course, for precisely the reason I write these essays. There are no other metropolitan areas in the U.S. with anything like the tiny core city that greater Hartford has. In all other similar-sized metropolitan areas, the large urban residential areas we call Newington, Windsor, Wethersfield, etc. are within the core city limits. Only in greater Hartford and other Connecticut cities are those urban residential areas separate towns.
How about jobs? The only rational way to double the size of the Hartford population would be to increase the number of jobs. If the target is another 122,000 people, I’d guess Hartford would need at least 50,000 new jobs to bring in that many people.
However, we all know that even if there were 50,000 new jobs in Hartford, and even if 122,000 new souls came to the area to take those jobs, only a fraction of them, maybe a third, would live in Hartford. Most of the new Hartford work force would live in the surrounding towns, just as most people who currently work in Hartford do. If Hartford wants 122,000 new citizens, therefore, it needs to create maybe 100,000 new jobs, resulting in 400,000 people moving to our area. That would be enough to double the size of Hartford, and in the process it also would add around 300,000 people to the surrounding towns.
In other words, what Lehman really is talking about, the only thing his challenge really could mean, is that the 350,000+ people in Hartford and the surrounding towns have to become 700,000. We all have to double.
Okay. If you’re like me, your head is spinning with all these numbers. And some of them just seem so preposterous, you’re wondering why I’m even talking about this. After all, 100,000 new jobs sounds like fantasy. A thousand new housing units a year seems absurd. Still, hang in for just a few more paragraphs.
It gets worse. The population of the United States is barely growing. The birth rate is well below the rate necessary to maintain the current population numbers; immigration is all that keeps the population from declining. If the U.S. population isn’t growing, then for Hartford to double, it will have to attract people from other cities. And those cities are planning to grow, too, so they want our residents just like we want theirs. It’s a competition, a competition that we’ve been losing for the past ten or twenty years.
And now, the punch line:
We have to get to work, because absurd as it sounds, David Lehman is right. Growth is the goal, and aggressive growth should be the objective. If our community isn’t growing, it’s falling behind. The future of our country always has been about growth, and if we want greater Hartford to continue to be a great place to live, it has to grow. If it is to grow, greater Hartford must attract employers who bring jobs.
If Lehman is correct, how in heaven’s name is greater Hartford going to attract 100,000 new jobs? I don’t know, exactly, but I know this: Greater Hartford is going to do it only if the entire community does it together. We’re not going to do it by dividing the task into eight sub-tasks and relying on each town to do its sub-task. That is, Hartford can’t, on its own, create 33,000 jobs, West Hartford another 16,000, Wethersfield another 6,000, and so on in proportion to each town’s population. It just won’t happen.
Lehman’s goal requires greater Hartford to transform itself into a new city, a city unlike the one we have today. The game has to change, and at the core of the change has to be a degree of community togetherness that is impossible with eight separate governments. We need to work together, completely together, to reimagine greater Hartford.
I applaud Messrs. Lamont and Lehman, but it isn’t their problem to solve. It’s ours. The state can help, but the change has to start right here.