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The City Is Dying

Population growth isn't what it used to be, at least in developed countries.
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An artist's rendering of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. (Photo: Public Domain)

An artist's rendering of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. (Photo: Public Domain)

Turns out, there is a geography to peak urbanization. First, I must address rural demographic dynamics. On one hand, the big loser from urbanization are country towns and villages (even small cities). In the developing world, that trend is going full bore. In developed countries such as the United States, rural communities have found a sustainable ground floor. That is, until now:

The years 2010–13 mark the first extended period of depopulation in rural and exurban America, although the latest figures show the pace slowed last year.

US Department of Agriculture data indicate a net loss of 28,000 from rural and non-metropolitan counties between July 2012 and July 2013, following a decline of 48,500 a year earlier. The total net loss since 2010 has been around 100,000, despite growth in the general population.

“This period [of decline] may simply be an interruption . . . or it could turn out to be the end of a major demographic regime that has transformed small towns and rural areas throughout the country for decades,” the USDA said.

Emphasis added. The end of a major demographic regime or an interruption depends on the culprit for population decline. I'll go all in on the end of a major demographic regime given the current global economic restructuring. Population growth isn't what it used to be, at least in developed countries. But the issue isn't just dying rural. Even in the United States, the city is dying:

In developed countries, the urbanization project is basically complete. The remaining urban growth will play out almost entirely in developing countries. In 2010, the urban population in the regions that the United Nations classifies as less developed stood at 2.6 billion. In 100 years, it is likely to be three times larger. Moreover, as Angel (2012) shows, the historical pattern of urban growth suggests that over this time horizon, urban population density in developing cities could easily fall by half.

This passage brings me back to the dying cities mesofact, lack of population growth. To American urbanists, the urbanization project has just begun. The city, not sprawl, is finally winning. But without immigration, the city is not winning, at least in terms of population growth. Rural decline is a function of peak immigrant. So is urban decline. If immigrants start skipping over gateway city and head straight to the suburbs (also another current demographic trend), then sprawl comes back in a big way.

Population growth equals winning. There's a geography to that. A growing number of people is good because it is. That's fine and dandy until the end of a major demographic regime. Demography as existential crisis:

Demography is the key factor. If you are not able to maintain yourself biologically, how do you expect to maintain yourself economically, politically, and militarily? It’s impossible. The answer of letting people from other countries come in ... that would be an economic solution, but it’s not a solution of your real sickness, that you are not able to maintain your own civilization. —Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, 2012 (epigraph of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting)

Yes, we must propagate the Volk in order to save the Heimat. The real sickness is demographic decline. The Rust Belt is sick. It can't maintain its own civilization. The rural is sick. That much we know. Soon, the city will be sick. It's only natural.