Preparing for sustainable, equitable growth

A lot of people are pretty pessimistic about Syracuse’s prospects for future population growth. ‘Our best days are behind us,’ ‘this place is going nowhere fast,’ ‘who’d want to live somewhere with this weather?’ People who think this way are fatalists—they think Syracuse is fated to decline, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

But there are other fatalists who are more optimistic about Syracuse’s future. They think that Syracuse is fated to grow again because of some global phenomenon—usually climate change—is bound to draw people to the City in the future. We don’t have to do anything to make that happen, we just have to wait.

This optimistic fatalism has always been less popular than the pessimistic version, but covid is giving it something of a moment. Early on in the pandemic, Business Insider named Syracuse the 21st best city in America to live in after the pandemic. They cited the metro area’s low unemployment rate and the high share of jobs that could be worked from home. Local boosters also touted the region’s low population density, light car traffic, easy access to nature, and highly rated suburban school districts to make a sharp contrast with New York City where the virus was raging in the Spring and early Summer. And this past week, the Post Standard reported that at least a handful of households from New York City have actually relocated to Central New York because of the pandemic.

It’s easy to overstate these effects—nine new residents aren’t going to change the fate of a metropolitan area with two-thirds of a million people—but they highlight the problem with optimistic fatalism: population growth will only result in positive change for the entire community if we do the work to prepare for it ahead of time.

The Syracuse metro area’s most existential problem is uneven growth across a region riven by minor municipal borders. For the last 70 years, population and economic growth has occurred at the urban area’s fringe, and that fringe has been expanding ever outward. As the fringe passes through any particular city, village, town, or school district, it provides temporary prosperity and facilitates municipal expansion—so villages lay sewer lines, school district’s build athletic facilities, towns subsidize new subdivisions. But that fringe has always eventually moved on and left smaller populations and lower tax revenues in its wake.

This is why Syracuse can’t afford to repair its roads, it’s why Northern Lights is a ghost town, it’s why Liverpool is closing elementary schools, and—if this pattern is allowed to continue—it will be why Onondaga County struggles to maintain the massive sewer system that it’s building out now.

So when we learned that nine people moved from New York City to Syracuse because of covid, and when we learned that one of them moved into the City while the other eight settled in Manlius at the current edge of the exurban fringe, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. That’s just a continuation of the demographic processes that have been playing out in Onondaga County for 200 years.

And this is why optimistic fatalism about Syracuse’s future is so frustrating—metro level population growth, all on it’s own, is not a cause for optimism. We do need more people, and it is good that these three households moved to Central New York, but more than that we need to do the preparatory work to that will allow us to harness that population increase to help meet the community’s biggest challenges.

We need to figure out how to grow sustainably and equitably. How to accommodate new people while also preserving farmland and wilderness, how to bring new people into old neighborhoods without pushing out existing residents, how to reorient our transportation system so that it can move more people more efficiently, how to modernize our governments to meet the needs of a metropolitan community, how to secure the benefits of growth and prosperity for the people who need them most.

We should be optimistic because Syracuse’s best days are ahead of us, but we can’t be fatalists because there’s too much work to do to create that better future.