Berkshire Business Outlook | Population Decline: Look for silver linings, expert says

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PITTSFIELD — In his travels through regions losing population, a Tufts University professor sees reasons for hope.

Justin Hollander found it in New Bedford, the subject of his latest book, "An Ordinary City." And he likes the odds for Berkshire County, despite projections that suggest the region could lose 12,240 residents by 2030 — nearly the size of North Adams.

"In shrinking cities, people are just as happy as in growing cities," said Hollander, who directs Tufts' Urban Attitudes Lab.

A contrarian view on population loss? Perhaps.

But as local efforts continue to roll out the welcome mat to new residents, including a major push to attract young adults, Hollander's research offers a reminder that, well, change happens.

"That's the nature of urban life. You'll have ebbing and flowing of industries," he said. "It should not be a point of embarrassment."

Civic and business leaders can, and should, address the issue, he suggests. But population trends are stubborn things.

In this region, projections by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission suggest that by 2060, the 18-to-64 workforce could shrink to 44,819. That total would be a little more than half of what it was in 2010.

In a widely circulated line chart created by the commission's Mark Maloy, the trend slopes downward. In the 40 years after the county's population peaked at 149,402 in 1970, the region has lost 18,183 people. A key reason: More have been leaving the region than arriving.

Maloy's long-term forecast is sobering. Barring successful efforts to reverse the trend, or unforeseen events, the county will see its population loss accelerate after 2030, heading for a head count of 80,695 in 2060.

If so, Berkshire County will have lost 50,524 residents. Maloy cautions this is the worst-case scenario.

When Maloy takes his demographic presentation on the road, he said it always generates discussion, with people asking, "What can we do?"

"There are a lot of blank stares," he said. "We're not alone in this. This is a rural American and global trend."

Mapping change


Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, thinks wheels are already turning to prove those projections wrong. His group helped lead a major study over the last two years into ways to change the narrative with a pivotal age group: young adults.

Butler believes recommendations released last fall by the Berkshire Initiative for Growth are finding their way into everyday business life, helping to turn the tide. (See accompanying story on those recommendations.)

The report urged local businesses to rethink how they recruit young adults, and how to manage them once they are on board. That can mean embracing workplace features, like flex time and telecommuting, that appeal to young employees.

Butler said he hopes leaders across the region are folding the recommendations into their everyday practices. "ID where you can make a daily, weekly or monthly impact," he said.

The report's final group of recommendations address immigration. Helping ease a transition into the Berkshires for immigrants is key to adding population, Butler and Maloy both say.

"A higher percentage of our population now is nonwhite, which is a good thing," Butler said. "It's very encouraging."

Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the planning commission, said immigrant communities are growing around New England.

"If it were up to native-born white folks, we are not replacing ourselves," he said. "We need to really nurture and be willing to welcome our immigrant and minority populations."

Karns applauds efforts to create more vital downtowns, which appeal to young adults. "You can attract a younger population. Pittsfield is definitely seeing evidence of that. It is statistically valid evidence."

"I don't think it's totally intractable," he said of population loss. "I think you have to have a very deliberate, multi-faceted approach to this."

Finding opportunity

In his 2017 book on New Bedford, Hollander looked into how that historically maritime community has managed its economic decline and loss of residents. It was the private sector and landowners, he said, who proved most adept at finding a new economic footing.

"The city eventually adjusted to a smaller footprint," he said of New Bedford.

As an urbanist, Hollander has spent years studying what cities can do when confronted with this problem.

In a 2011 journal article, he wrote that policymakers should "view shrinkage as an opportunity and not as a hindrance."

To seize that opportunity, planners and civic leaders need to overcome a host of political and other barriers. One obstacle is hubris. Political leaders often prefer high-profile projects related to population loss, regardless of their chances of success. But he believes job and real estate markets do not often respond well to government intervention.

Population declines are not necessarily bad, he says. "That's a hard thing, especially for politicians."

When Youngstown, Ohio, found itself hollowed out, after losing half of its population in the decades after 1950, leaders embraced the concept of "smart decline." A master plan the city adopted called for a "better, smaller Youngstown" devoted to improving the quality of life for its residents.

Too often, public efforts fall victim to corruption, Hollander said, speaking of examples he's studied nationally.

"Most of the time they just give it to their friends," he said. "There's too much at stake and not enough oversight."

The most effective lure to new residents may be appealing and fairly paid work.

"It's jobs that are driving economies," Hollander said. "If you have a high quality of life and strong educational institutions that are producing students, it's more likely you will reduce that gap."

As leaders in the Berkshires mull effective approaches to countering population loss, Hollander says they have tools at the ready.

One is the supply of relatively low-cost housing. Another is access to open space and the lack of the kind of commercial sprawl that has disfigured other regions losing population.

Still another is the region's agricultural potential, given the popularity of the local food movement.

"Those are the kinds of things that you can see as an opportunity," Hollander said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.

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