Hope v. reality regarding Springfield growth
April 21, 1978
This column was inspired by a prediction from Springfield area planners that the population of Sangamon County could hit 224,000 people by 2000. From its founding, Springfield boosters have entertained expectations of population growth that went beyond the optimistic to the delusional, and this prediction was no exception. The county had only 189,125 residents in 2000, and by 2020—forty years after this projection was made—the county’s population had not yet reached even 193,000.
Readers of last Sunday's Springfield State Journal-Register swallowed some demographics with their morning shredded wheat in the form of a front-page article about a forecasted population boom in Sangamon County. The piece cited statistics prepared by the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission which promised that the county's population, estimated to be 169,500 in 1975, will jump to 224,000 by 2000.
Readers—to continue the gustatory metaphor—should take such predictions with a grain or two of salt. Population projections resemble opinion polls in that both are inexact measures of reality which are given far too much weight by intelligent people who ought to know better. As is the case with the polls, it is common for different demographers using the same basic data to come to significantly different conclusions; the state's Bureau of the Budget, for example, released a similar estimate last December that set the county's 2000 population at 210,000 people—six percent less than the planning commission's estimate.
Some local historical population projections have proven definitely to be of the “Dewey beats Truman" variety. In 1909, Springfield was a town of 51,000 human beings, give or take a few legislators. That was more than twice the number living there in 1890. A Chamber of Commerce speaker, mistaking that twenty-year spurt for a long-term trend, said that he couldn't think of a single reason why Springfield shouldn't have 100,000 people "within the next ten years or even sooner." That was sixty-one years ago and Springfield hasn't hit 100,000 yet, a fact which reveals something useful about Springfield, chambers of commerce, and the art of population projection.
To be fair, that guess was as much an expression of hope as a prediction. A presumably more sober analysis was made in 1923 by a Chicago planning firm, American Park Builders, whose nearsighted seers said that Springfield would be home to 200,000 souls by 1968. The actual population in that unhappy year, of course, was closer to 90,000. The population people have gotten better since then, of course, and they may set a precedent and prove themselves right this time.
The really disturbing aspect of the Sunday piece lay not in the numbers anyway. Planners guess that as many as 35 percent of Sangamon County's new residents will settle outside metropolitan Springfield in satellite towns like Sherman, Rochester, and Chatham. That pattern was established in the boom years of the '60s when, like a child who's been given too generous an allowance, we were able to buy great many things that weren't good for us. Families who could afford a new house, two cars, and gasoline bills that would stagger a cab company overran the somnolent farm towns within a half-hour's drive from their jobs in the capital. According to the planning commission, Auburn grew by 50 percent in sixteen years, Sherman by 292 percent in fourteen, Chatham a dizzying 427 percent in sixteen.
Chatham is something of a symbol of surburban growth locally. As population increases, residents begin to demand of their new home all the urban amenities—parks, more police, better streets, traffic lights—all of which make for bigger and bigger village budgets. The town is forced to pursue a suicidal growth policy to build a tax base sufficiently large to pay for them. As the village's planning chairman told a reporter, "We really need a plan to provide municipal services to encourage growth. " In the process the things that made Chatham such an attractive place to live—good schools, quiet, low taxes. small-town atmosphere— are gone, destroyed. Chatham today is a sprawling, ugly middle-class ghetto. Eventually such towns become like Springfield only smaller—much smaller, since they develop most of Springfield's problems without any of its advantages.
Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.
Were the problems associated with suburbanization confined to the suburbs, I wouldn't mind much. Anyone who moves into a cornfield, thus putting a forty-minute drive between him and a tube of toothpaste deserves whatever he gets. Trouble is, we all pay for it. Suburbanization requires the costly extension of roads, utility distribution systems, sewers. It adds to the cost of fixing roads and clearing them of snow. It complicates law enforcement and adds distance to the problems of providing good fire protection and ambulance service. It makes the automobile a necessity instead of merely a convenience, crowding our streets and parking lots, adding to the pressure for new roads and delaying our weaning ourselves of foreign oil. It blights the landscape, strips the countryside of wildlife habitat, destroys irreplaceable farmland, fragments our politics. The face of Progress, seen up close, is pimpled.
It's for these reasons that population—how much and where it grows—will be at the core of local politics for at least next decade. It is a factor in the debate over commercialism and zoning, as Springfield tries to preserve its own tax base against the loss of residential and commercial development to neighboring towns. It is a factor in annexation squabbles as new housing goes up on the city's periphery. It is a factor in the declining enrollments in Springfield schools. It is a factor in the failure to provide park space to an increasingly dispersed population. It is a factor in mass transit planning, sewer construction, tax inequities. It is, in short, a Problem with a capital "p"
Maybe the population projections will be wrong again. Maybe the suburban dream will turn sour. Maybe. ●