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MIDKIFF: In Columbia, publicly-funded death by growth

COLUMBIA, Mo 12/8/14 (Op Ed) -- In the wake of several recent tax and fee failures, city government is now pushing $67 million in new bond debt for Columbia's publicly owned Water and Light Department, coupled with rate hikes all of us will pay if voters approve.

In support of the the idea, we're already hearing an argument we've heard over and over:  Columbia must "grow" and we all must pay to keep growth going. 

Defeated in November, Proposition 2 would have raised development charges to support new infrastructure in growing Columbia.  One of the silliest reasons I heard for opposing it stemmed from this concept.  Columbia must "grow or die," Prop. 2 opponents pronounced.

Economic growth would come to a standstill if a rather modest increase in fees paid by developers passed, was the BS line from prominent developers, attorneys, a certain newspaper publisher, builders, and construction industry suppliers.  Their campaign-- complete with urchin child left destitute by higher development fees -- claimed that taxes would increase and grocery bills would soar.

They supported none of these claim with any facts because there were no such facts available. 

The “grow or die” mantra is simply not true. All living organisms reach an optimal size. “Grow or die," in fact, is the maxim of only one living thing: the cancer cell.

The cancer cells grow into a tumor, and if unchecked, ultimately takes over the body, eventually causing the death of the host. I must "grow or die" the cancer cell insists, fighting attempts to curtail its growth -- its takeover of the host -- at every step.

Clearly, the concept that any living thing -- or any group of living things, like a community or city -- must grow or die is patently stupid. Infinite growth in a finite space is not possible, scientifically, economically, biologically, or any other way. A more realistic goal -- for persons and communities; for cells and developers -- is to keep growing while keeping the host alive.

A few years ago, several of us posed a question to the Mayor at that time. “What is the optimal size for Columbia?" we asked.  At what point would growth become unhealthy?

The Mayor was perplexed; he had never considered this question. After some reflection, he said his goal was to keep Columbia growing. Considering a lesson of history, we offered a different viewpoint: Growth cannot go on forever. It will become unhealthy when the city is no longer a desirable place to live. 

Population will then shrink and the city will begin to die.

From St. Louis to Detroit, many once-growing, thriving cities have lost population, as residents move out in search of more pleasant places; a better economy; more opportunity; more balance -- between growth, affordability, and livability. We attempted to persuade the Mayor that Columbia would grow until it became an unpleasant place, at which point further growth would stop.

Columbia is darn near that point now. Drive, pedal, walk -- and look around.

There's sprawl everywhere, with raw dirt exposed by heavy machines as developers plea for citizens to move in and for us taxpayers and ratepayers to pick up the tab for what they need.  Just as the cancer cell needs more capillaries, blood vessels, and space, developers need water pipes, sewer pipes, power lines, law enforcement, emergency health services, and land.  And Columbia is woefully short on much of this infrastructure already. 

Growth is fine to an optimal point guided by reasonable planning.   But hereabouts, local officials and developers plan for "more growth" with little thought about the lives of the inhabitants who make growth possible.  The lessons of history are clear:  cities that grow beyond an optimal point start to die.   

 

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