Seattle and Phoenix, two tales of growth

Seattle and Phoenix were the two fastest-growing big cities last year, depending on how you measure it. They couldn’t be more different — and rain is the least of it.

Seattle was the nation’s fastest-growing city in percentage terms last year, as my colleague Gene Balk reports. With a 3.1 percent gain, the city crossed the 700,000 mark for the first time. The Census Bureau report also showed that my hometown of Phoenix added the most people numerically among big cities, 32,113, to reach 1,615,017.

This makes Phoenix the fifth most-populous city in the United States, behind New York, LA, Chicago and Houston. It surpasses Philadelphia (a milestone it hit briefly in the 2000s before falling back to No. 6).

Most people in Seattle are likely to react to this news with ambivalence, if not overt horror. By contrast, Phoenix is celebrating madly, as this booster town always does for such numbers. (As a columnist there, I called these events “growthgasms,” which made me few friends.)

The difference is explained by the fact that the overriding goal of Phoenix since the middle of the 20th century was to add people. “Growth pays for itself,” was the motto.

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In 1950, when Seattle held 467,591 souls, Phoenix for the first time entered the ranks of the nation’s 100 largest cities — barely, at No. 99 with 106,818. It was smaller than Spokane, Wichita, Kan., or Dayton, Ohio.

This Phoenix was a walkable oasis, 17 square miles, with a real downtown. It was surrounded by an agricultural empire made possible by rich soil, the confluence of rivers in a wet desert and federal reclamation. They called it “American Eden.” Otherwise, it had no Boeing, no port, no terminus of four transcontinental railroads. It had sunshine, land and more federal help in new defense industries and housing policy to subsidize suburban construction.

Be careful what you wish for.

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