How Cities Grow

CEOs, statisticians, and a tourist weigh in on Memphis and Nashville.



There are three ways of looking at the past and future growth of cities: through the eyes of chief executives, through the eyes of demographers and scholars, and through your own eyes.

On Tuesday, I went to the Peabody for a taste of the Airport Cities World Conference and Exhibition to get the CEOs' view. Fred Smith of FedEx and Richard Anderson of Delta Airlines were onstage with John Kasarda, a professor and author who coined the term "aerotropolis." Memphis is an aerotropolis city because of the airport cargo and passenger hubs.

The questions to Smith and Anderson from Kasarda and members of the audience were friendly. This was not Meet the Press. Anderson didn't talk about Delta's recently announced cutbacks in service in Memphis. He said the future of passenger aviation holds continued consolidation, high fuel prices and higher fares, fewer trade barriers, and little if any growth in employment.

Still, he said, "I think the winners are cities like Memphis," because of companies like FedEx and Medtronic, which is "a gem." He praised Memphis International Airport for its investments in the ramps, runways, and terminal.

"We probably have the lowest operating cost of any airport in the United States," Anderson said.

Other places he did not name are "eight to 10 times more expensive and the quality may not be better."

Smith was bullish on the long-term outlook for international trade, aerotropolis cities, and FedEx but only made a couple of general comments about Memphis. He cited a study showing that one out of three jobs in the metro area is tied to the airport and said there are some 40,000 jobs in bio-sciences alone. Memphis, of course, is in the big leagues of aerotropolis cities like Hong Kong, Beijing, Amsterdam, and Paris only because of FedEx.

"The best place to locate is next to one of these locations, where you can have access on an eight-hour or 24-hour basis to everyone on the planet," Smith said.

The statistician's view of Memphis and Shelby County is not so bullish. The University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research has done population projections for the next 20 years for every county and city in Tennessee. They are posted on the state's official website.

Shelby County, population 910,776, is projected to decrease to 875,972 in 2020 and go to 905,818 in 2030. The forecasters predict that Memphis (population 680,276) will lose 23,000 residents in the next 10 years.

Davidson County (Nashville), population 641,948, is projected to grow to 736,606 in 2020 and 764,142 in 2030. The fastest-growing areas of Tennessee are Rutherford County (Murfreesboro) and Williamson County (Franklin), south of Nashville in the center of the car industry. Rutherford County's population is projected to grow from 251,596 to 420,465 by 2030 while Williamson County's projected growth is from 174,485 to 318,873.

The third view, from the streets, is not as scientific. I spent three days in Nashville last weekend, including several hours in a honky-tonk called Roberts Western World on Broadway under the influence of a little alcohol and a lot of country, rockabilly, and bluegrass music. One of the stars was bass player Joe Fick, known to Memphians as a member of the Dempseys.

The place was packed. So were most of the other bars and sidewalks on lower Broadway and the streets around the Ryman Auditorium and the convention center. How many of those people were locals and how many were tourists I can't say, but there were thousands of them, and they were overwhelmingly white. I mean like Master's at Augusta National crowd white.

My unscientific view, based on living in Nashville and Memphis for many years, is that cities, like schools, self-segregate, assuming that there are employment opportunities. Over time, they become more of what they are. Nashville is not an aerotropolis city but it is a capital city with car factories, transplanted Midwesterners, a big-name hospital and university, and a lot of old money.

Politically, Middle Tennessee is the well-tuned hub of a growing red state, and the home of the blues, as in music and politics, is 200 miles away.

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