Last week I wrote about David Lehman’s remark that the population of Connecticut’s cities should double in 25 years. David Lehman is the Governor’s economic development chief. This week I discuss some additional questions that flow from such an exceptional notion.
I said last week that Lehman’s remark could only be understood to mean that the metropolitan areas – that is, the cities and surrounding suburbs – will need to double. It’s inconceivable that Hartford’s population could double without significant population increases in the surrounding towns. I also said that Lehman’s goal is the correct objective for a community like ours. If we aren’t growing, and growing substantially, we will be losing ground to other cities with whom we compete for employers and citizens.
Doubling is an audacious goal. It seems almost inconceivable, but it isn’t impossible. Austin, Texas has been doing it for 30 years. Atlanta’s been doing it for close to 50 years. Granted, those are two of America’s great modern success stories, but the point is that it can be done.
How would greater Hartford double in population in 25 years? How would it transform itself from 350,000 people living in central Connecticut into 700,000 people? I suppose it could happen by accident, by the confluence of multiple world-wide forces driving large groups of people from one part of the world to another. Central Connecticut could become home to a half million refugees fleeing famine or endless war or religious or political persecution. Why they would find their way to our particular community instead of hundreds of others in the U.S., I don’t know, but I suppose it’s possible.
It’s that sort of causation, outside the control of the people of greater Hartford, that Erik Assadourian posited in his piece in the Hartford Courant on February 2, 2020. Assadourian would have us believe that climate change will be so severe over the next 25 years that millions of Americans will become refugees from major east coast cities and that the human flood will double the size of Hartford. Maybe. (He’d also have us believe that the continued exhaustion of fossil fuels will have all those people walking or riding bicycles. I prefer to think that if such a human flood occurred, we’d have better solutions than a Schwinn.)
That isn’t the kind of growth that Lehman is suggesting, however. Lehman is talking about intentional actions taken by people in Connecticut that have the intended and actual effect of increasing economic activity in the state, attracting employers, and attracting new citizens. He isn’t suggesting we sit back and wait for some serendipity that miraculously doubles our population. Waiting for lightning to strike isn’t much of a strategy.
The way for greater Hartford to grow is to plan for growth. That planning would include identifying the kind of employers that would benefit particularly from being here and how to bring them here. It would include plans for where such employers could best locate their facilities within this regain. It would include plans for housing throughout the region to accommodate the growing population, and it would include plans for transportation improvements so that the metropolitan area will remain livable.
That kind of planning would result in an action plan – it would identify specific things we as a community are going to do in order to cause, or at least increase the likelihood of causing, employers and employees to move to greater Hartford.
We can’t do that kind of planning with our current governmental structure. So long as we choose to think of ourselves as citizens of separate towns, we won’t have the region-wide focus or commitment to effect major change. Hartford can’t develop and act on that plan alone, nor can any one or two of our other towns do it. It’s too big a project, it would require more resources than any one or two towns can commit and most importantly, it would be presumptuous of one or two of our towns to plan the future for all of us.
That kind of planning can be undertaken only regionally. We have to plan our future together.
I already can hear people saying we should create a commission or an inter-governmental agency of some sort through which Hartford and the towns can get the job done. And I’m telling you it won’t happen and it can’t happen. How do I know? Because the Capital Region Council of Governments, created exactly for such purposes, has existed for 50 years and never come close to driving an audacious goal like doubling the population. It’s not for lack of trying. CRCOG can’t do it because the separate political interests of its member towns effectively thwart significant progress toward unified action. And let’s not forget the MetroHartford Alliance and its predecessor organizations, which have been trying to stimulate growth here for decades. They haven’t been able to do it, either. (I’m not saying they haven’t done the plans. For all I know, their file drawers are full of great plans. I’m saying they can’t get the job done.)
Our towns are called “political” subdivisions for a reason. They are political organizations run by political people who respond to political pressure. If you want ten towns to agree on one plan for the future, you need each of ten towns to see the future and get on board. That isn’t going to happen, not in all ten towns. We all know that and understand that. Only by reorganizing into one political subdivision instead of eight or ten or fifteen will we be able to come together as one community and begin to plan for our future.
Double? I don’t know if we want that or can do that. The fact is that we don’t know what we want, because our governmental structure doesn’t facilitate our coming together to talk about it. We all go to our little town meetings and talk about our little town issues, as if what is happening or more to the point, not happening, in our neighboring towns has no bearing on our future.
I know these essays often come around to the same conclusion, and if you’re a regular reader, you’re thinking I’m a broken record (if you remember what that is). However, isn’t it interesting that almost any way we look at the problems and future of greater Hartford, the conclusion is the same: It’s time to change. It’s time to come together to plan our future. It’s time for us to be one city instead of ten towns.