“Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”
These famous words were uttered by then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in 2009 in reference to the economic crisis. To some, this comment seemed crass: millions faced layoffs and foreclosures as the United States—and the world’s—economy was crashing hard. But Emanuel was not purely referring the crisis as a political tool so much as he was referring to the opportunity presented to fix a larger systemic problem with the country that lead to the crisis in the first place. With the country mired in the biggest economic calamity since the great depression, Emmanuel described a chance to gain support for a change in the status quo.
In Stockton, there is no doubt that we are in the midst of a “serious crisis”. The question is: are we going to let it go to waste?
Our crisis, as readers of the site know, stems mostly from the faulty economy built during the booming housing bubble, where Stockton’s agrarian economy was transformed into a bonanza of housing construction on the city’s borders. The city brought in money by allowing developers to build as much as they wanted as buyers viewed houses as commodities, not homes. As I have pointed out, focusing growth solely on single family housing and strip malls on the outskirts of the city makes little sense financially. Car-dependent subdivisions also prove less valuable than housing in established, walkable neighborhoods. Now that the veil of cheap suburban housing has been lifted, major metropolitan areas are seeing a shift away from the suburbs back to cities.
As reported in the USA Today, the flight to the suburbs has ended. Of the nation’s 39 largest counties, all but two (Detroit and Cleveland), experienced population growth from 2010 to 2011. Most of these counties grew at a rate faster than the rest of the country, with a median growth rate of 1.3%, compared to .73% for the national average. Moreover, central metro regions made up 94% of the country’s growth, compared to 85% before the recession. All of these numbers show us that the 40 year shift of population from cities to suburbs is starting to trend in the other direction. Cities have been eager to bring residents back, and it looks like their efforts are beginning to work.
Will Stockton follow suit? As I discussed here, the city’s unrelenting expansion funneled residents away from the city’s older, established neighborhoods. By allowing housing to become the city’s main economic driver, Stockton paid a heavy price during the collapse. Now, the city has a big opportunity to reshape the city to promote a more sustainable pattern of growth while the housing market has yet to bottom out. As the housing bubble taught us, cramming single-family homes at the outskirts of the city is unsustainable. We now know that cities that adopted a sprawling model of growth fared the worst in the crisis: Stockton, Phoenix, Las Vegas all had their economies collapse whereas more densely built cities weathered the economic downturn relatively well. But will the city take real steps to ensure that once the housing market rebounds, the juggernaut of subdivision construction won’t simply pick up where it left off?
As readers of the site are aware, I believe that sprawl is the biggest issue facing Stockton as it moves forward. However, out of this crisis lays a big opportunity. New developments are stalled and empty lots sit vacant until housing prices stabilize and demand for housing returns, but once the market rebounds, will the city be content to allow the cycle of unsustainable growth continue, or will leaders and developers see the error of their past decisions and adopt a more sustainable pattern of development that promotes construction of complete neighborhoods—not just houses—within the city?
Stockton can’t afford to take on the costs of expanded infrastructure, additional police and fire coverage and new school construction needed to accommodate the unrelenting sprawl of the past. Instead, city leaders should look to curb outward growth in favor of development that takes advantage of established city assets. For its part, the city has recognized the need for more control to some extent. The city planned to try and add more housing inside the city, though in reality, this proposal back in 2008 was more of a way to appease the Sierra Club and the state, not a real vision for a way in which the city should actually grow. As more and more residents look to move back into city centers, Stockton can choose one of two paths: city leaders can work with developers to come up with the right balance of new single family housing and denser, infill development that takes advantage of existing city assets, or Stockton can pretend that the last five years never took place and let developers resume their unencumbered march away from the city, draining resources, revenue and people away from the real Stockton. For the city’s sake, I hope it is the former.