In 1910, the U.S. had 92.2 million people. In one century, we have more than tripled our population — and just in the decade since the last Census, 30 million Americans were added. Oh, sure, there are huge swaths of empty land in Iowa, North Dakota and Michigan (the only state to lose population since 2000) where we can stash more people. The trends, however, don't indicate an exodus to these places is imminent.
The Nutmeg State is, with 3,574,097, pretty maxed out as well. It's certainly not as overstretched as California, Florida, Arizona and Nevada — the boom of these latter two places is just one sustained drought away from total disaster — but it's still quite a crowd for so small a state. Connecticut's numbers would be less alarming if they were compressed into thriving urban areas. Instead, they are spread around in sprawling suburbs, as Connecticut's five most populous cities — in descending order, Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, Stamford and Waterbury — became more Hispanic while “white flight” continued apace.
Nonetheless, one truth buried deep in the state's census numbers is, in a kind of back-assward way, good news. That is, the wave of rampant, short-sighted residential development that swelled the suburbs since the 1990s is on a downward arc. This is a double-edged sword, of course, because the main reason for the sprawl-relief is that the economy that was fueled by this same manic speculation collapsed, leaving the remnants of its pointless handiwork (empty and foreclosed McMansions, half-completed spur roads, clear cut woodlands, lost farmland and habitat, etc.) in its wake.
This all calls into question one of the more enduring falsehoods in American business-speak; that is, that “development” (a sort of stand-in for the more nebulous “progress”) is always a good thing. Thus, one of the main measures of our nation's economic health has long been new home starts. At some point, however, the speculation for anything (not just new homes) far outpaces the actual need and yet, because the “health” of the economy has been tied to this dubious measuring stick, we are said to be in a time of “bust” when, as cliché-happy business writers have it, “growth has slowed to a crawl.” To which I respond: “Hey, you say that as if it's a bad thing!” Maybe, in this time of alleged economic “crawling,” we can find new ways to measure our “health,” rather than use these worn-out indices.
In his book Green Metropolis, David Owen of Washington, Conn., offers compelling evidence that rising human population can be accommodated in smaller spaces without compromising livability. He points to NYC as being the “greenest” place in America. The city has more people than 11 other states and yet the average New Yorker emits only one-third the amount of greenhouse gases as the average person in the rest of the U.S. The carbon footprint of the average New Yorker is less than any other place in the country, less than your back-to-nature farmer in Litchfield County or your solar-powered split level in Bloomfield or Avon. Eighty-two percent of New York's residents take public transportation, ride bikes or walk to work, and 75 percent don't own cars.
In short, though our numbers continue to swell, Planet Connecticut can ever so slowly plot a different, more sustainable course. Gov. Malloy, with his pick of Dan Esty as Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection, has made a good start.