The Painful Truth of Population Decline

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Few Americans have studied the plight of formerly industrialized cities more closely than Alan Mallach. Throughout his career, the noted community development expert has delved into the challenges facing many small and medium-sized communities that have had to deal with concentrated deindustrialization, disinvestment, and population contraction.

He has distilled much of his accumulated wisdom in a new book, “Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World, Learning to Thrive Without Growth.” Mallach not only gives a history of shrinking places but also addresses an almost existential topic: how we think about population and employment growth at the national, regional, and local levels. 

Mallach’s long resume includes time as the housing and economic director for Trenton, New Jersey. His time in that position catalyzed a longer career as a sage for the plight of legacy cities and left-behind places. His new book addresses an obvious yet often overlooked reality: that population stagnation, if not outright decline, is a demographic trend that will become more widespread in the United States and around the world.

Until now, places experiencing outright population decline represented an exception in a world where growth was the norm. The United States has seen waves of population growth fueled by consistent flows of immigrants along with a postwar baby boom and its demographic echoes. But now, as Mallach explains, the compound effects of aging populations, declining fertility, and lower immigration flows all will contribute to depressed population growth across the nation. With slower global and national growth, communities will have no choice but to shape futures based on more moderate population trends.   

Planning and economic development will mean something different in a world where growth is not ubiquitous. For many communities, at least moderate decline will be a baseline. Managing decline remains one of the most derided of public policies; this attitude has persisted because growth has been regarded as the norm for so long. Few local officials have been able to make the argument that smaller is better without facing career-ending political repercussions. 

Any coach of young athletes might recognize the trajectory of Mallach’s synthesis. Through much of the first part of the book, he explains the global and historical perspective of regions that are facing population decline. It’s impossible to read the first half of the book without questioning the growth-is-the-norm premise, as well as other core axioms of economic development. Mallach pushes the reader to see past these assumptions and develop an alternative way of looking at the future.

Mallach’s purpose is not to be a modern anti-Malthus, giving warning of dour demographic trends beyond the control of local communities. What he advocates is an almost sacrilegious view that population growth is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for building prosperity, and he offers a roadmap to navigating a low-growth or no-growth future. In the latter half of the book, he focuses on the policies that can help communities “build sustainable futures in the challenging world of the coming decades.”

The book should not be seen as a compendium of one-size-fits-all policies for all communities, however. Indeed, Mallach emphasizes the need for adaptive leadership focused on locally shaped approaches. He advocates a shift in philosophy that “requires thinking different about how local economies should engage the larger economies in which they are embedded.”

Projections that growth would slow, and that communities would have to adapt, are not new. A half-century ago, scholars such as Ben Chinitz, Charles Levin, Edgar M. Hoover, and others looked ahead to an era of slower growth and pondered the fate of mature regions past their peak. Two decades ago, the economist Paul Gottlieb articulated a thesis of “Growth Without Growth,” which argued that population growth in itself is not a useful metric of a community’s success. Then, a little over a decade ago, Youngstown mayor Jay Williams advocated a policy of managed decline – which Mallach discusses – predicated on accepting the fact that the former steel-dominated city would not regain past peaks of population or employment.

The world was not ready to hear these past warnings. Until recently, outright population decline, at least in an American context, was an isolated problem, and slowing growth remained more conjecture than reality for many communities. But emerging trends now make a slow-growth or no-growth future a more immediate prospect.

In the end, Mallach’s remains a discordant view. He challenges us to think differently about the definition of success across a broad range of planning and economic-development policies. He has reignited a debate about growth: Is it the standard of success that all communities should measure themselves by? 

Mallach says no. Let’s hope that he is right.

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