Is growth good? Most people probably don't think so. But is growth really all that objectionable?
Not necessarily, according to an interesting and simple bit of research by the National Association of Home Builders, the 225,000 member trade organization that speaks for the housing business. By comparing two primary sources of data, NAHB's David Crowe found a positive relationship between additional houses and the livability of the area where those houses are being built.
Of course, that's a conclusion the naysayers say they'd expect a builder-sponsored study to report. But Crowe, an economist who works in the NAHB's Advocacy Group, swears he has no axe to grind other than to obtain a fair hearing for his members when they appear before local zoning boards and planning commissions.
"When builders try to make their cases at the local level, they are immediately confronted with trying to refute a negative because people's perception of growth is almost always negative," he explains. "All we are trying to do is raise the dialog to a level playing field."
One thing in the NAHB's favor is that it didn't drum up any of the data, or manipulate it in any way. Rather, Crowe simply charted two independent sources of information, housing starts per capita in 260 metropolitan statistical areas as collected by the Census Bureau and Bert Sperling's ranking of the nation's best places.
The government data speaks for itself. But in case you don't recognize Sperling, the Best Places guy, he's the person who developed the very first "Money Magazine Best Places to Live" ranking in 1986.
And he's been compiling lists of bests ever since. Among his numerous lists are the best places to raise a family, best places for retirement, most stressful cities in which to live, best cities for seniors and worst cities for respiratory infections.
Last year, Sperling and co-author Peter Sander published "Cities Ranked and Rated," a tabulation of more than 400 metropolitan areas based on 10 key categories -- population, economy and jobs, cost of living, climate, education, health and health care, crime, transportation, leisure, and arts and culture.
The categories are extremely broad, but under each heading is any number of key subsets. Under economy and jobs, for example, the authors looked at per capita income, household income, the employment rate and recent and projected job growth, among other things. And under education, they considered academic achievement, expenditures per pupil and student/teacher ratios in the public school system, and the number of colleges and universities.
Armed with the Census figures for 2000-2003 and "Cities Ranked and Rated," Crowe used a standard research technique known as a correlation analysis to show that there is a systematic and positive relation between growth and quality of life. In other words, the places with the highest rate of growth in terms of housing starts tended to be the places with the highest quality of life. Conversely, those with the lowest growth rates tended not to have as good a quality of life.
"It sounds overly simplistic, but no one had ever done this before," the economist says. "So we sat down and looked for a correlation, one way or the other, and we now have an economic case to dispel the common perception that growth will kill a community."
Crowe admits that his findings don't show that growth doesn't bring the kind of overcrowding people dread. It does. There's just no getting around it: More people mean more cars on the roads and more kids in schools.
But his little research project does show that growth also means more and perhaps even better jobs and a larger tax base to pay for a wider variety of services, better roads and public transportation, more libraries, better schools, more recreational activities, better cultural pursuits and all the other things that Bert Sperling rates as part and parcel to a higher quality of life.