I think it’s kind of cliché to start an article or speech with the definition of a word, but I think this calls for it.
Growth: noun 1. the act or process, or a manner of growing; development; gradual increase.
There’s a connotation associated with every word. We know this, it’s spurred the “politically correct” movement in the U.S and it’s landed some people in hot water as a result.
What about the word growth? What comes to mind? Up, upward, outward, bigger, stronger, larger…killer? When we were kids, we couldn’t wait to “grow up,” but now as adults, we look back and realize what a life we had.
In cities, the word “growth” or “growing” generally means that we’re doing well, right? We’re “growing” so we need a gigantic school on the edge of town or we need X thousand more parking spots because of all this “growth.”
If you think about it, it’s somewhat disingenuous to use that word. No citation here, but I would think that the majority of Americans would put the word growth into a positive category. It’s ingrained in us that growing is good. Things that grow are doing better, they’re not dying.
The word growth preys on the positive connotation we associate with it. We hear growth and think good, but in a city, we’re all to familiar with growth killing the city or aspects about it that we love. What if we don’t want “growth,” but rather “strength” or “sapience?” These aren’t words that people want to hear because it doesn’t trigger the emotional aspects of progress or survival.
That’s what it really boils down to, survival. We’ve been taught so long in the U.S. that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. Is that true? Absolutely not. I’m sure you can name plenty of communities that haven’t really grown, but are still doing just fine. We throw around the word growth like it’s the only thing that matters for our cities. Not place, not function, not beauty. Growth.
The problem with the word “growth” is that it’s terminal. It has to be. No one or no thing can grow forever. Likewise, there’s a word that has to balance it, decay. So, if you talk about growth, you have to talk about decay, something leaders generally don’t like to do. We hear growth without any talk of decay, leading us to believe we can keep “growing” forever.
Throwback to puberty. Between 6th grade and 8th grade I grew about six inches. Imagine that trajectory if I plotted it out until I was 25. I would be… somewhere around 8’6, a full foot taller than Yao Ming and swimming in NBA contracts.
This is what we seem to do in our cities, however. We build and build because of growth that’s projected, but not here yet. We build for stuff we might not even need because “growth.” We have no idea if the growth is sustainable, we have no idea if we need all this stuff, but it’s the perception that we do and that we will in the future.
I’m always reminded of a saying that my friend told me:
Uncontrolled growth in a body is called cancer. In a city, it’s called progress.
It’s true, we “grow” and we generally don’t care where or how as long as it:
A. is adding new buildings and stuff
B. is adding new tax base (even if it’s super low-returning)
C. means we can get some kind of federal or state stipend or grant.
This is why I say we do away with the word completely. Even when we’re talking about growing ridership of transit or growing interest in urban ideology. Just kill the word and use something else.
My suggestion is maturing or maturity–at least when we’re talking about cities.
Remember how I told you I grew six inches in two years? Well, I didn’t mature much in that time. I was still snotty, arrogant, disrespectful by the time I was six foot. However, when we mature, we learn how to be polite, courteous, etc… Things that will give us a far greater advantage in the years to come then being strong or big.
Imagine if at the next city council meeting they mayor said, “Our city has seen a great deal of maturing in the last few years.” It might sound a little off, but what would you think? I would think, this city is referring to her citizens and not just it’s physical footprint on the land. It’s talking about the community, not just the buildings. It’s somewhere that sounds safe and established.
It sounds human.
Neighborhoods rarely truly grow, that is, their capacity for people isn’t greatly increased. When you see a neighborhood bounce back though, you’re not seeing growth, you’re seeing maturity. People investing in a city to make it a unique place to be.
So, if you can, stop using the word growth. It’s so passé. Pick up a thesaurus and thumb through for something different. A word that accurately represents what your community is going through.
Stop chasing growth, start chasing __________.