Seattle is now the fastest-growing big city in the country and that’s good for the whole region, because cities are the drivers of our economy and of innovation in every area of life. The rest of Washington should cheer on its largest city even though our values may clash sometimes.
Last Thursday, the Census Bureau said that between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2013, Seattle grew by nearly 18,000 residents to about 652,000. That was the fastest growth rate among large cities. Read Gene Balk’s FYI Guy column in The Seattle Times for more about the census report.
Cities and the regions they are situated in need each other, but they don’t always recognize that or appreciate each other, which can be harmful to both in the long run. The city at the other end of the list from Seattle, the one that lost the most population, is Detroit, which had among its multiple problems a state and even suburbs that have been hostile to the city. We don’t want to go that route.
The bigger cities get, it seems the more distant they can be from smaller places in culture and politics. That’s a very old dynamic, but it has a fresh significance in modern America.
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I recall seeing a map after the last presidential election that showed red states and blue states, but it also zoomed a little closer so that it was clear most states had more than one color, and that even in red states, the biggest cities were usually blue: Atlanta, Denver, Houston, to name a few. Our sharp political divisions are rural and urban divisions.
Living in a city changes people, and depending on your point of view, it either corrupts them or makes them more sophisticated. People move to the big city and take up ideas that wouldn’t be popular back home. They sometimes get comfortable with people who might be shunned in smaller places.
The thing is, people adapt to their environments. Cities, suburbs and rural areas draw people in different directions. Cities force people away from some very natural tendencies and from ingrained ideas about life and human nature, so it’s not surprising that cities are feared and even despised by some traditional-minded people.
In a small community, people may talk about taking care of our own as a value. Cities bring together great numbers of people and require structures that a smaller place may be able do without.
Cities and rural areas bring totally different perspectives to arguments over the size of government, over the role of the family, over how welcome immigrants should be, over who is part of the group people are bound to care about and who isn’t.
Our country’s past is rural, and the reason our present political divisions pit people who live outside cities against cities is that the values from that past linger in places where people aren’t forced by circumstances to change.
In a small place you may not have to work next to someone who comes from a different state or a different country, or who is a different color, or chooses to dress differently from you. Weird is easy to identify, and nothing to celebrate. The divide between city and small places isn’t absolute. It’s just easier to be one way or the other depending on where you are.
People in cities form in-groups and out-groups too, but cities have to be able to deal with a variety of humanity. The challenge makes them stronger and more dynamic than places where change and difference are threatening.
Our nation’s politics at the national level is stymied by the collision of two opposed views of the world, one largely rooted in the modern urban world and the other in smaller places more tied to the past.
The past isn’t all bad, and neither are its values. Cities certainly aren’t all good, but we do live in the present, and that present is dominated by cities. The country can’t thrive without thriving cities.
Smaller places often have the comfort of uniformity. City people have the challenges and opportunities presented by diverse, dynamic populations.
That can look awfully messy, and it is. Rubbing shoulders causes friction and conflict, but friction and conflict are important ingredients in the creativity and innovation cities are known for. The impact of that, especially the economic impact, affects entire regions. A healthy Seattle is important to communities from Alaska to Montana.
The city itself belongs to the region. Its schools, its transportation infrastructure, the health of its government and its businesses matter outside its boundaries. It sees the world a little differently than smaller places, but that’s as it should be.
Seattle’s growth is something the whole state should celebrate.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com