The motto of the town of Mount Pleasant, now visible on the new pillars on the overpass of the new Highway 17, is Cresco, Latin for “We Grow.” As a factual description of the history of the town — at 75,000, more properly a city — it can’t be faulted: Mount Pleasant was listed last year by the Census Bureau as one of the top ten fastest-growing cities in the country, at a rate of 4 percent a year.
As a goal and guiding motto, however, an increasing number of residents are beginning to prefer Haud Sic Velox — Latin for “Not So Fast.”
It is hard to come out against growth. It is, after all, the bedrock principle of capitalism and of the American economy, and it has been such a component part of American society for two centuries that it has achieved an almost sanctified status, up there with life and liberty, and certainly the pursuit of happiness. So much so that critics of urban growth, as many here in the Lowcountry, unreflectively say, “I’m not against growth of course, we have to grow, it’s just the type of growth we criticize.”
And yet any rational person, of that dying breed, realizes that nothing can or should grow forever. A tooth grows until it is complete and does not become a fang. No toe grows so much its shoe cannot contain it. A human body grows until it reaches its maturity, and stops — if it should grow to be as large as a beanstalk giant, say three times the size of Jack, as J. B. S. Haldane showed some years ago, its thigh bones would not grow thick enough to bear its added weight and he would break his thighs each time he took a step.
As with human bodies, so with human institutions, like neighborhoods and cities: size matters, and growth makes changes well beyond just more people. Any city planner knows that doubling a city’s population means a vast increase in area, since as a population increases arithmetically its space must increase roughly geometrically. That means urban services like fire and police become increasingly complex and bureaucratic, school systems become quickly overrun and the school boards expanded beyond efficiency, city government becomes too intricate for untrained and unprofessional staff, and traffic problems multiply beyond mere wider streets and more parking garages to solve them.
Under these circumstances it is not irrational, nor unpatriotic, to say: I think we’ve reached our limits and I am against growth, and so should the rest of you be. Let’s look now and see how to stop and cope with the size we’ve become.
It is pertinent to do a comparative test. The advantages of becoming a bigger and bigger city? Well, mayors like to expand their tax base and increase their influence, leaving bigger projects in their wake — parks, highways, museums — so that their name might be remembered, and city councils are all too often persuaded to go along with them. But of course these taxes must be increased sufficiently to pay for all the new services and schools and streets as well as the memorable projects, and the citizenry does not come out appreciably ahead.
Anything else? You can build higher skyscrapers, attract bigger banks, and maybe land a major league team in some sport.
The disadvantages? Legion. As cities get bigger they generally have increases in crime rates, traffic congestion, pollution, garbage, income inequality, illnesses, taxes, crowding, stress, social disorder, laws and regulations. Sometimes ingenious and well-run cities can cope with these problems, but since increased growth creates new problems incessantly, old solutions begin to fail and new ones become harder to come up with.
Interestingly, the problem of the optimum city has been confronted by philosophers, builders, and architects for centuries, ever since the Greeks, and some rough agreement has emerged: from Plato to Montesquieu the favored range was about 35,000-50,000 people. Modern analysts have pushed that up a bit, considering improvements in technology, but the range is generally 50,000-100,000 people. Constantine Doxiadis, after a lifetime of planning and building on five continents, concluded that “throughout the long evolution of human settlements, people in all parts of the world have tended to create urban settlements which reached an optimum size of 50,000 people.” We have tended to solve the problems of urban living at that size, he adds, but not much above that.
The clear conclusion for those today facing the scourge of growth would seem to be a new city motto: Non Cresco. The problem then of course becomes what to do with the people already in town, whether to grow up or out, concentrate or sprawl, but we can work on that one once we know we’ve reached our limits.
Kirkpatrick Sale, the author of 12 books of history and ecology, lives and writes in Mount Pleasant.