Localist Living in a Shrinking Age
I try hard to give people insights into trends affecting our world. One of them is the way that declining birth rates will ultimately translate into shrinking cities.
In the future, many if not most of us will be living in places whose population is shrinking. This will have profound consequences - fiscally, economically, in terms of services, and for anyone running a business, church, ministry or other organization in these places.
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Shrinking cities have long been a phenomenon of the Rust Belt, as well as analogous regions around the globe. As suburbanization and then deindustrialization hit, cities like Cleveland, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, South Bend, and a host of others lost a huge share of their population. Even some metropolitan areas lost population on a regional basis.
The response of most people who don’t live in these places has been “too bad, so sad.” Shrinkage was seen as a phenomenon that affected a relative handful of unlucky places but was pretty much irrelevant to everybody else. The 2016 election caused people to pay more attention, but shrinkage has still been viewed as a contained phenomenon.
Alan Mallach argues that far from being an anomaly, shrinkage is likely to become the norm, in the US and abroad - even in China, saying, “By 2050, shrinking cities will have become the dominant urban form in China.”
Mallach is an urban planner who has studied shrinking cities in the Rust Belt for years. So he’s very aware of all the issues in these places. He’s one of the most knowledgeable, thoughtful people on the subject and one of the few who is willing to venture independent thought. He has a new book out called Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World: Learning to Thrive Without Growth.
In the book he notes that US population growth has slowed significantly in recent years. The birth rate is far below replacement, which is starting to show up in population figures. I just took a look at the data, and almost 75% of counties in the country had more deaths than births last year. Traditionally, births outnumbered deaths, so much so that the births minus deaths figure was called “natural increase” by demographers. Natural decrease was rare - but now it’s the norm. In fact, the Census Bureau actually renamed the field in its data release this year, calling it “natural change.” And a think tank called the Economic Innovation Group created this map, showing that almost the entire country is seeing declining numbers of pre-school aged children.
There are even fewer young kids here in the Indianapolis region where I live, despite what seems to be robust overall population growth.
Some places have offset the birth dearth with immigration, but this has proven highly destabilizing to national politics - and most immigrants smartly avoid shrinking cities in favor of ones with greater opportunity.
The Consequences of Shrinkage
The pre-industrial world was able to exist with more or less steady population for hundreds of years. But industrial society is built on growth and seems to function poorly without it. In this environment, shrinkage is a major threat. As Mallach puts it, “Population loss is a powerful risk factor increasing the likelihood that any or all of a long list of potential outcomes, mostly bad, will take place.”
Here are some of the bad things that happen with population shrinkage:
Many of the costs of local government - infrastructure maintenance, debt, etc - are fixed. So if you lose population, that means higher taxes for everyone else. Which of course only encourages them to leave, too. And eventually cities can’t pay for basic services.
With a shrinking labor force and consumer market, the economy will also shrink. This means lots of places will go out of business. This includes churches, which can’t sustain themselves with fewer members and less wealth in the community.
The above fuel disinvestment in and abandonment of both public and private properties, producing blight.
Growing cities have a bigger pie, so everyone can get a bigger slice. Shrinking cities are a zero sum or negative sum game. Someone’s win is somebody’s else’s loss. This make productive collaboration difficult and fuels corruption, which in my experience is pervasive in shrinking cities (Muncie, Indiana is a good example).
Decline causes many people who can to leave. This is disproportionately the most entrepreneurial (migration is an inherently entrepreneurial act) people in the city, as well as people with money.
Poverty and dysfunction grow, increasing social service needs, but with less local money to pay for them. Eventually the city becomes a ward of the state, or what Mallach calls the “urban transfer payment economy,” subsisting almost entirely on federal and state transfer payments. Youngstown is an example there. Even most people who nominally work in the private sector, like health care, are ultimately paid through transfer payments like Medicaid.
All of this produces a self-reinforcing cycle of decline. Just as growth begets more growth, often decline (other than that produced by temporary shocks) begets more decline.
General decline doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be pockets of growth. In fact, decline actually creates bubbles of growth as people pile into the places that are perceived to have better prospects. For example, Japan’s population is shrinking, but Tokyo has hung in there. I don’t think it’s any accident that growth really took off in Indianapolis and Columbus as the rest of their states went into decline. This means there could be many boomtowns even in a shrinking America, with high real estate prices people have to pay to get access to opportunity.
Responding to Shrinkage
Shrinkage creates a difficult context for almost anything. The church in America has been oriented toward serving new growth markets for some time: megachurches in booming suburbs, hip cool churches in gentrified city centers, new ethnic churches in rapidly growing immigrant enclaves. But in coming years and decades, the American church will increasingly have to retool to function in areas of decline far beyond the traditional “inner city ministry.”
Mallach is skeptical that there’s any external solution for shrinking cities. There won’t be massive federal aid packages for structural adjustment. In fact, the federal government is more likely to impose huge unfunded mandates like sewer remediation onto poor, shrinking cities. Nor is the tide towards overall population stagnation or decline likely to reverse, meaning it’s not as if we are in a demographic recession that will end soon. These conditions will last a long time. He writes, “Cities will have to confront the reality that growth at the national or global level will no longer provide them with a solution, if that’s the right word, to the challenges of shrinkage.”
Although Mallach is on the left, his proposed solution is one that I think will intrigue even many conservatives: networked localism. It is localism because it is about building up local forms of community and economic life. It’s networked because it doesn’t seek to cut the city off from the world, but to take advantage of outside, even global resources, where possible. He says;
Localization is not a panacea. Cities will be unequal in their ability to benefit from localization, whether with respect to natural resources or financial and human capital. Moreover, it is not a substitute for continued national and international trade so much as a supplement, to reduce the level of overdependence on larger systems that make it all but impossible for small cities to build sustainable economies and retain talent.
He says this should operate by four principles:
Good governance and delivery of public services based on public-private collaboration and trust building.
Building up the city’s human capital (e.g., education).
Improving quality of life, starting with the physical realm
Integrating environmental sustainability into everything.
With the exception of point four, which I will address in a moment, this is basically the agenda I’ve advocated.
Examples of this kind of localism would be the creation of a local food movement; painting murals on abandoned buildings; and small scale, cheap “tactical urbanism” interventions. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers to what localism would look like, and knows building it will be difficult. He says, “Making the transition from being a pawn in the globalized economic system to building a successful localized economy is fundamental, wrenching change.”
As I said, the localism agenda is one that is hot among both certain segments of the secular, liberal world and also conservative religious groups. We can see it in the kinds of economies and communities these religious communities have been trying to build places like Moscow, Idado; St. Mary’s, Kansas; Steubenville, Ohio; Kiryas Joel, NY and elsewhere.
The Christian localism concept is one that will have to be more thoroughly explored and deployed in a shrinking future. For one thing, there won’t be any choice. Shrinkage will produce a very different financial situation for religion in an increasingly wider swath of the country. The rise of the “Nones” - people with no religion - and the passing of the Baby Boomers and their tithes will have a similar impact on top of this. New models will have to be explored. Some of these new localist ideas are explored in Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li’s book The Coming Revolution Church Economics.
But churches can also play a key role in building an overall localist movement in a community. Apart from their spiritual truth, they can also address the pragmatic elements of creating social capital, improving human capital, providing social services, engaging in community development efforts, racial reconciliation, etc. Churches of all stripes should be thinking about how to play a constructive community role in an environment of shrinkage.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that most of these communities would welcome churches being part of their city’s solution - not conservative churches at any rate. That’s something implicit Mallach’s book, and something any conservative religious leader needs to be willing to accept.
I am a big fan of Alan Mallach and would recommend his book, if you can handle something that’s a bit wonky and dry. As I said, he’s one of the most thoughtful guys out there.
Unfortunately, this book is the most explicitly ideological thing I’ve seen him write. Mallach got attacked recently for some of his writing, particularly on zoning reform, which is never fun. I have noticed that heterodox thinkers often spend a lot of time “counter-signaling” - e.g., intellectual dark web types denouncing racism - in order to try to inoculate themselves against critique. Perhaps there’s some of that going on here.
We see that ideology in two ways. The first is its centering of the climate change agenda. While climate change is a major concern for some shrinking cities around the world, the heartland of US shrinkage in the northern United States east of the 100th meridian is less exposed to negative impacts from it. In fact, these areas could potentially gain from a warming climate, given the huge role played by average winter temperature in population growth.
One of the most fundamental tenets of localism has to be breaking from the national/global ideologies created and promoted by the most successful and elite people and places (and which are designed to entrench their success), and focus on what’s right for your community.
There are plenty of environmental initiatives that make sense for shrinking cities. Which ones vary by place. Cleaning up contaminated “brownfield” sites is an example. Improving parks or encouraging urban agriculture could be another. If I had a few million dollars to spend on environmental problems, I’d probably spend it on something like lead abatement. (Lead can cause permanent cognitive impairment in children). Any types of carbon reduction or “sustainability” initiatives wouldn’t even make the list, unless there was some specific local concern such as increased flooding along a nearby river.
The second ideological case is when Mallach extensively criticizes populism, which he says is simply “neofascism.” (Conversely, the word “riot” only appears once, and that in a historical context). This is basically saying that any Trump supporters and their views are beyond the pale and completely illegitimate - and by implication should be excluded from participating in civic renewal efforts. So while like almost everyone, Mallach is very keen on “inclusion,” it’s clear that not everyone is to be included. While in the bigger shrinking cities like Cleveland, there aren’t many of those people and thus they can be safely ignored, in many smaller shrinking places there are a lot of them, sometimes a majority. And a lot of places - including in some heavily minority areas - have seen a strong shift in that direction.
I also searched for the word “church” in his book and there are only a handful of mentions, mostly negative and only one positive. Instead he focuses on NGOs, or the non-profit complex. Although churches are technically non-profits, they are rarely included in most people’s idea of the term. He obviously doesn’t view them, whether conservative or liberal, as a major localist force.
As my friend Connor has noted, one of the big problems facing cities of all varieties is the excessive power wielded by what he calls the “NGOctopus.” In smaller cities, where there’s little in the way of individual wealth or for-profit industry to counterbalance these, NGOs are particularly powerful.
Virtually all NGOs, whether community non-profits, universities, philanthropies, etc. are 100% compliant with national/global left ideology. The people who staff them are often true believers, but even if not, it would be almost physically impossible for them to say or do anything that conflicted with these ideologies because it would destroy their future employability. Remaining bankable in society at large outweighs every other consideration for almost every business or civic leader everywhere in America. We’ve probably never been a bigger go along to get along society than we are today.
It’s hard to see how you could have genuine localism in a city where a third or more of the population is systematically excluded from the table as illegitimate fascists, and where the people who are at the table are structurally unable to say or do anything that conflicts with national/global left ideology.
Ironically, it’s the elite, successful progressive cities where there is more genuine ideological dynamism and genuine discussion of ideas, and as a result more space for localism. There are many groups from left to right in NYC with a lot of different and genuinely local ideas. It even has a major conservative tabloid newspaper, the New York Post. A lot of high wattage heterodox people have moved to Austin. There are wealthy tech bros pushing back on the left in San Francisco.
But shrinking cities - and many second tier and below cities in general - are dominated by “hicklibs.” These are moderately talented but very insecure people who are completely imitative of what they think their aspirational peers in coastal cities believe. In red states, they are also often deeply animated by a kind of ressentiment against conservatives and state government. This leads to a suffocating uniformity of thought, typically ideological placed between the center-left and far-left, with remarkably little dissent except for the occasional Republican candidate for office. These places are intellectually moribund.
This is not an auspicious environment for genuine localism to flourish. Until this ideological capture is broken, cities will never be able to chart a localist course. That doesn’t mean every idea from the left needs to be rejected and a Trumpist course embraced instead. The Trumpists are ideologically captured as well, and grossly incompetent to boot, the main difference being that at the local level almost everywhere they are completely marginalized. Rather, it means having the courage to chart a heterodox, independent course that makes since for a particular place and is genuinely inclusive of the people who live there.
Aaron Renn is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.