Should Milwaukee’s population reach one million? Our new mayor thinks so

If you live in Milwaukee, your new mayor wants you to be one in a million.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson believes the city should strive to reach a long-term population goal of 1 million, propelling it into the ranks of America’s largest metropolises. That would be a 73% increase from Milwaukee’s 2020 population of 577,222, ranked 31st among U.S. cities.

It’s an idea rooted in the New Urbanist ethos that Johnson shares with former Mayor John Norquist: promoting development in densely populated, bustling neighborhoods where residents can walk, bike or take public transit to work. and do their shopping without a car. And it’s closely tied to a goal Johnson shares with many other local leaders: attracting more jobs to support the family.

“Cities are the lifeblood of states, the lifeblood of the country,” Johnson says. “If you don’t grow, you lose. I don’t want Milwaukee to be on the losing side.

Johnson, a native of Milwaukee and its first elected black mayor, sees big cities as dynamic and vital places to live, like New York, Chicago and Paris. But a city’s vitality depends on a job-creating local economy, with ripple effects that promote healthy neighborhoods and public safety, he says.

“Years ago, Milwaukee just kept growing,” Johnson says. “We were a city of 700,000 people.” If family support jobs had remained in the city, the population would have reached 1 million, he adds.

But that didn’t happen.

Milwaukee’s population grew with each census from 1860 to 1960, peaking at 741,324, when it was the 11th largest city in the nation. This century of growth paralleled the city’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse, where international immigrants and black people from the South came to find factory jobs.


AMONG THE FIVE GREATEST Cities in the Midwest, Detroit lost its population at the highest rate since 1960, while Milwaukee and Chicago recorded significant losses. But if Milwaukee had continued to grow at the same rate as between 1930 and 1960, it would have overtaken Indianapolis and Columbus, instead of falling behind them, and its population would have reached 1.2 million in 2020. Assuming it there is no change in the other cities. growth rate, Milwaukee would be the 10th largest city in the nation.


In the 1960s, however, freeway construction helped fuel the “white flight” to the suburbs, and the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s hit manufacturing hard, dealing a disproportionate blow to Milwaukee’s heavy economy. . Compared to peak levels, jobs in the city have fallen 10% from 1980 to 2019, to just under 300,000, according to research by Marc Levine, professor emeritus of urban studies at UW-Milwaukee. Manufacturing jobs accounted for a large share of that loss, plunging 79% from 1963 to 2019, to just 25,500. The city’s share of the metro area’s total jobs also fell, from 57% in 1970 to 34% in 2019.

As a result, Milwaukee’s population has dropped with every census from 1970 to 2020, with its ranking falling from the top 20 U.S. cities in 2010.

What if the population had continued to grow? At Milwaukee’s rate of growth between 1930 and 1960—an average of 9% per decade—it would have passed the million mark by 2000. But in response to then-Mayor Frank Zeidler’s aggressive annexations in the 1950s, the legislature facilitated the task. for suburban towns to incorporate, enclosing the city within its current boundaries.

Comfortably pushing 423,000 more people into the same space would require big changes. On the one hand, the city’s neighborhoods – not just the city center – would need to attract denser development. Johnson said he would target areas along busy bus routes, such as Bronzeville, Walker’s Point and neighborhoods around the northern link of 27th and Center Streets and Fond du Lac Avenue.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson; Photo by Sara Stathas

“We can’t reach 1 million just by people living in downtown condos,” says Robert Schneider, professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee. “[Johnson] makes a strong statement of fairness: “I believe in neighborhoods in Milwaukee.”

Levine says it’s unclear how many municipal jobs would need to be added to support a million residents, but it’s clearly a lot. To spur neighborhood development and reverse the loss of jobs in the city, Johnson’s economic plan calls for attracting new businesses and remote workers, while encouraging tech startups – especially those led by women, people of color and veterans – and helping small businesses grow, coupled with job expansion. training and affordable housing.

Managing this kind of growth in a sustainable way would also require major changes in transport, in order to be less dependent on the automobile. “The question is not how far to grow, but how to grow…in a way that minimizes growing pains,” says Chris McCahill, executive director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative at UW-Madison.

Johnson advocates “people-centered development” that “does not require someone to have an automobile to experience commerce or life in their neighborhood.”

The mayor says he would encourage development models that make it easy for residents to walk or bike to neighborhood shops and restaurants, and take buses or streetcars to other parts of the city. He would also seek federal funds to fund The Hop’s long-standing expansion plans, and he would support county plans to establish and expand bus rapid transit service.

A combination of strong regional transit, walkable neighborhoods and affordable housing along major transit routes would allow the population to grow without significantly increasing traffic congestion, McCahill said. But Schneider says the increased congestion could be “one of the cultural shifts we need to understand in Milwaukee.” More development brings more activity, and the resulting traffic can be “a sign of a thriving community,” he says.

“Imagine Broadway and St. Paul near the public market in the summer,” says Schneider. “Yes, the street is busy, so drivers can’t get through. But the upside is huge: crowded sidewalks with people shopping, eating, and having fun. Access to bikes and public transit is easy, “and the streets are safer for everyone because the cars are going slower.

“The mayor’s vision could lead to similar street scenes across the city, supporting local businesses in corridors like Villard Avenue, Martin Luther King Drive, Cesar Chavez Drive, Mitchell Street and more,” Schneider said.

These changes may take some time. If Milwaukee’s population started growing now at the same rate it did from 1930 to 1960, it would eventually reach
1 million – but not before 2090. If the 35-year-old mayor lived to see that, he would be 103. Notably, Johnson does not set a timeline for achieving his goal.

Over a 30-year period, 800,000 to 850,000 might be a more realistic population goal, Schneider says. This would require a healthy growth rate of about 13% or 14% each decade by 2050. Continuing to grow at this rate would bring Milwaukee’s population to 1 million by 2070.

But Schneider agrees to set a big goal like
1 million to start a conversation about neighborhood development and transportation: “It forces people to step out of their current mindset and think differently. »


EVEN AMONG AMERICA fastest-growing cities, it’s hard to find one that has achieved what Mayor Cavalier Johnson wants Milwaukee to do: reverse a 22% drop in population over 60 years, then grow 73% without expanding its borders.

“While the mayor’s goal of reaching 1 million residents is laudable, it’s really quite unrealistic,” says Marc Levine, professor emeritus of urban studies at UW-Milwaukee. Excluding Sun Belt examples that are not comparable, “no major city has done this in the United States in the last 40 years.”

Some cities in the South and West have experienced explosive growth in recent decades. Austin, Fort Worth, and Charlotte more than doubled their populations from 1990 to 2020. But those cities were already growing in most of the previous decades, and they annexed large swathes of neighboring territory.

Three of the fastest growing major cities in the Midwest during this period – Columbus (up 43%), Madison (up 41%) and Indianapolis (up 21%) – also experienced little or no previous population declines.

Robert Schneider, professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee, points to several large cities that grew after shrinking for at least 20 years, including Denver (9% drop from 1970 to 1990, then 53% increase ), Seattle (declining 11% from 1960 to 1980, then up 49%), and San Francisco (down 12% from 1950 to 1980, then up 29%).

Johnson isn’t the only mayor seeking this kind of relief. Three other major US cities have lost population over the past 30 years – Detroit (down 38%), Baltimore (down 20%) and Chicago (down 1%) – a period during which Milwaukee’s population dropped 8%. Detroit and Baltimore have lost population since 1960, as has Milwaukee, while Chicago has rebounded in two of the past three decades.

Like Johnson, the leaders of these cities are pursuing New Urbanist strategies, Schneider says. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is following a similar playbook of developing walkable neighborhoods with improved public transit, while eliminating the blight and avoiding gentrification.

Duggan summed up this approach in his 2013 campaign slogan: “Every neighborhood has a future.”


This story is part Milwaukee MagazineJuly issue.

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