Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

How America grows: A tale of two cities

Gilbert, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., have approached expansion in two very different ways.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Daniel B. WoodStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2006


As US population grows inexorably toward 300 million, there are two visions for the future of American towns and cities. Although very different, each seeks to create a sense of community, a sense of place where none existed before.

Skip to next paragraph

One focuses on downtown areas – often run-down, sometimes left as polluted industrial "brownfields." This new kind of urban renewal is seen in places like the trendy Pearl district in Portland, Ore.

The other vision – the most dominant one – is found among the tile-roofed homes mushrooming outward from the nation's fastest-growing city, Gilbert, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. As recently as 1970, there were fewer than 2,000 people in this former agricultural town once called the "Hay Capital of the World." Today, the population is some 180,000; it's projected to peak above 300,000.

Five years ago, Gilbert had two automobile dealerships; today it has 17 – including, as Mayor Steven Berman proudly points out, "the third largest in the country." Five years ago, it had no hospitals; today there are two, and a third one is under construction. The whack of framing hammers and the buzz of power saws resound in new neighborhoods pushing out into those former hay fields.

Get used to it, says demographic trend-watcher Joel Kotkin.

"The sprawl is going to happen," he says. "You've got 100 million new people [since the US topped 200 million in 1967], they've got to go somewhere, and most don't want to live in the city. End of story."

Public opinion bears this out. Just 13 percent want to live in a city, 51 percent in a suburb, 35 percent in a rural community, according to a 2004 survey by the National Association of Realtors and a group called Smart Growth America.

"If you look at the survey data, even the nice cities are losing population," says Mr. Kotkin. "It's San Francisco, Boston, and Minneapolis, not just Cleveland and Philadelphia. The population growth of even the most robust cities is much less than the surrounding areas."

Still, most people need to work and not everyone can do it from home, although that's a growing trend. That means that most people need to live not too far from where their jobs are.

The idea, then, is to create what many planners and officials call edge cities or micropolitan areas, galactic cities, or technoburbs. These places are largely self-contained, with many jobs for local residents, most of whom would not have to be commuting long distances.

That would be Mayor Berman's dream for Gilbert. "Our goal is to build a town that everyone would want to live in," he says. "Not a resort town or a finance center, but a home town."

Finding its own identity amid the sprawl of Phoenix may not be easy.

"I have a theory that if they dropped you at eye level into any of these towns, you couldn't tell the difference," says Jay Butler, director of the Arizona Real Estate Center at Arizona State University. "Gilbert really is no different from [the nearby towns of] Chandler and Mesa. The homes look alike, the SUVs look alike, they all have a Costco."

But there are limits to such growth. In a state where 84,000 new homes were built last year – 7,000 a month – a major concern with such population growth is water.