Tuesday, September 22, 2009

You might have noticed from some of my previous posts that I have a fascination with land use. In particular, I enjoy dense urban spaces, sweeping rural farmland, and untended wilderness. But truth be told, the suburban middle ground has always been tricky territory for me.

Call it nostalgia, but when I look at maps and aerial photos of Spartanburg before cars became quite so widespread, I envy the development patterns I see. The first true aerial photograph I've ever seen of Spartanburg dates from about 1927 (not surprising since that's the year the airport opened). That photo shows a dense downtown pretty much the same size as the one still there, urban neighborhoods, a tight ring of suburbs, and miles upon miles of farmland.

Of course the 82 years that have elapsed since that photograph was taken have brought substantial changes. But in at least one way, things actually haven't changed much at all. Based on the way land use has changed in Spartanburg, you might be tempted to think that our population has exploded. But that's just not true.

The population of the city in 1930? Just over 28,000.
70 years later in 2000? 39,000.

That's a growth of only 39% despite seventy years of border expansions, baby boomers, and all the rest. To add a little more perspective on that, Spartanburg's population rose by about 24% in just the ten years from 1920 to 1930.

In many ways, that meager 39% is the story of small town America, and compared to most, Spartanburg has done well.

But that's really not what I think about most when I look at that photo and compare it with what I see here now. I wonder: Why are we using all this space despite such a small population growth? Is this really the best way to lay out a society? Are we really willing to pay this price for land-use freedom? Why should "the market" dictate this for us? Ignore for a minute all the political complications in this and just think about it: using so much land is wasteful and irresponsible.

And who or what can change it? Our society needs an answer because it needs to change somehow.


Gary Henderson said...

Brad, I believe we once had a much larger population inside the city limits but somewhere along the way declined. I seem to recall we were a couple of places higher city standings (population). Of course, I'm saying this without the benefit of recent research, but I do recall the H-J did some stories about it. Rock Hill is larger than Sburg now.

Scott said...

It's important to consider that while the population of the city has not grown significantly, the city limits have more than doubled in area. What this means is that the population density has decreased dramatically over the past 80 years. You also have to consider that the actual built up area outside of the "city limits" is much, much, larger- about 150,000. So even though the city limits do not reflect that population, that is the effective size of the population in Spartanburg and its suburbs.

If South Carolina's annexation laws weren't so backwards, the city would probably have shown a much more steady population increase over the decades.

Anonymous said...

The "Nashville Agrarians" a group of academics writing in the 1930s had a proposal that would have prevented a lot of wasteful suburban sprawl. It was really a simple idea that could have had tremendous impact on land use - the idea was to make it illegal for corporations to acquire land. The Agrarians believed personal ownership would be more responsible.