Bob Ray Sanders

May 24, 2014

Cities must be prepared for rapid population growth

Fort Worth could learn a few lessons from Detroit.

In the 1960s, I often spent my summers in Detroit, which at the time was a bustling city almost five times the size of my hometown of Fort Worth.

With a population of just over 356,000, Cowtown, although comfortable with its cultural sophistication and overall lifestyle, really didn’t compare in those days with the Motor City, which had a population of around 1.7 million.

Consider the two cities today and you find quite the opposite contrast. Based on the latest figures released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau, Fort Worth — one of the fastest-growing cities in the country — has a population of 792,727, more than double its size 50 years ago.

The city gained 14,643 new residents from 2012 to 2013 alone.

Detroit, on the other hand, for the first time in about 100 years, saw its population drop below 700,000, to 688,701.

It’s probably unfair to compare Fort Worth to the northern city that never completely got over the 1967 riots, was severely hurt by massive white flight, fell victim to a tide of corporate abandonment and was further devastated by a succession of inept and/or corrupt political leaders.

At the same time, it is important to note as we North Texans take pride in this latest census data, that a curse often accompanies quick and substantial growth.

That nebulous thing we call “quality of life,” which is usually the soul of a city, is often the first thing to suffer when a community grows too much, too fast.

It can happen when leaders fail to plan for growth or simply don’t have the vision to see how expanding populations can drastically change a place, for better or worse.

Surely you’ve heard someone say, “Fort Worth is a big city, but it doesn’t feel like it.”

How long will we be able to say that?

Until these newest figures from the Census Bureau, Fort Worth was the nation’s 16th largest city, something many of us never thought we’d live to see. (Charlotte, N.C., eked out the 16th spot this year with just 135 people more than Fort Worth.)

Still, it doesn’t feel like the 17th largest city in the country, larger than Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, Boston, Miami and Washington, D. C., just to name a few.

But how long will Cowtown have that “feel”? How long will it be a city where the mayor can jump on a bike and conduct her “rolling town hall” meetings? Or a place that can close Main Street to vehicular traffic every few months for festivals and concerts?

As Fort Worth and many other North Texas cities continue to grow, we must be ever mindful of the needs that will grow along with the population, including schools, public safety and municipal services like roads, parks and libraries. Add to that list mass transit and water.

Don’t forget that in the midst of this growth we have to be even more committed to protecting the environment for ourselves and for those who will come after us.

Then there’s the matter of governance.

Current leaders need to identify, mentor and make room for young people who can take on leadership roles, hopefully bringing a commitment to the values we hold dear and a vision of their own that will help us adapt to the changes that are sure to come.

It is also time for Fort Worth to consider expanding its City Council from eight members to 10 (elected from single-member districts), with the mayor elected at-large. That move will bring more diverse and efficient representation.

All of these things, and more, will be needed for Fort Worth to manage its growth.

If you don’t think this city could ever go into a deep decline, just consider Detroit.

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