Population and Growth, Part 2

In Caught in the Middle, Richard C. Longworth paints a grim picture of the future of the Midwest, what with declining populations, ever-shrinking job markets, and small towns dying on the vine.

As Longworth puts it, the “rural Midwest, in truth, existed for one era, and that era has passed. It responded to the economic demands of a single century, from 1850 to 1950, and has been withering ever since. Globalization only finishes the work of earlier decades. There is no place in a globalized world for the small town and the family farm.” He finds fault with  Midwesterners, in particular their nostalgia for the bygone era of the small prairie town.

How true is this here in Missouri? Are we, too, holding onto a past that’s no longer viable?

Out of the 972 towns and cities in Missouri, fully 62% or 607 of them have populations less than 1,000. In fact, 103 or 11% have populations below 100. Only 9 cities have populations that top 50,000. That’s a mere .9% . Now, these are 2000 census numbers and some cities have grown considerably over the last decade, but this is an argument of proportion. With well over half the towns in the state easily classified as “small,” how is this not tipping the political balance in favor of policies directed at saving areas that Longworth and others would consider unsaveable.

To exacerbate this problem, Missouri has 34 state senators and a dizzying number of state representatives—63.  In fact, each representative has only about 31,000 constituents. (In contrast, California has 80 assembly members, representing about 420,000 people each, one of the largest ratios.)

Past initiatives have focused on small communities, often to the detriment of emerging metro areas or established cities such as St. Louis or Kansas City. MODOT’s unrealistic promise to build four-lane highways into small, rural towns. The Missouri Main Street Program’s goal of helping small towns rebuild without asking the difficult question of whether or not they should be rebuilt. An incomprehensible reluctance to fully support the state’s flagship university in Columbia.

In tough economic times, we’re forced to think in terms of what is possible and what can realistically be funded. But we should also be thinking about what we want our future here in the Midwest to look like. There is a lovely nostalgia surrounding the notion of the small town and the family farm. However, there’s an equally appealing narrative surrounding emerging cities in this new century. Why not replace the family farm with the community garden? The general store with the local coffee shop? The Wells Fargo wagon with the Metrolink? The horse-drawn buggy with the commuter bike?

It’s time we stopped striving for a past that may never have existed and instead fully embrace the exciting future our cities face.