“Growth” v. Growth – Remembering the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, 2016

GTECH stands for Growth Through Energy and Community Health.  It goes without saying that we think growth is important.  But we should clarify what we mean by growth, because not all growth is positive.  In fact, when growth becomes synonymous with success and excludes other metrics, it can be downright detrimental.  At the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference (Baltimore, September 28-30), Congressman Dan Kildee referred to this phenomenon by insisting that we live in “a culture based entirely on the conflation of growth and quality.”

Below are just a few of the ways that growth can lead to unintended and unhealthy consequences:

 Once again, Congressman Kildee reminds us, “despite better knowledge, we continue to invest in sprawl, moving development out of the city and into green space.”  This is an instance in which growth is linked inextricably with decay.  New development harms rural ecologies and urban communities alike.  Here, “growth” means more pollutants, more infrastructure to maintain, more vacancy and more money in the pockets of already well-to-do developers.


Requiring growth for the success of an economy directly conflicts with efforts to make that economy sustainable.  As long as we live on a planet with limited resources and susceptible ecologies, we cannot sustain continual economic growth.  And yet we measure economic success in terms of growth in GDP, share value and quarterly profits, pushing businesses to produce a lot for as little as possible, shirking quality and even incentivizing products with a limited life cycle (so consumers buy another one sooner than later).


Moving from economy to ecology, we call a species of plant “invasive” when it is introduced to an area where it has no natural competitors, allowing unchecked growth which can in turn choke out other native species and even (where vines are involved) bring down entire tree canopies.  Halting the growth of these species is crucial to the growth of healthier ecologies.

Of course, growth is critical.  We wouldn’t be here without it.  Think of the budding of a flower, or the development of a child.  At GTECH we encourage growth in a variety of shapes and sizes:

  1.     Growth through Energy –energy for action in a community built upon strong relationships and tangible accomplishments.
  2.     Growth through Community – building community connections and capacity
  3.     Growth through Health – improving the health of our communities, and growing a culture that advances human and environmental health as a more important metric than economic growth.


But maybe the best way to discern between “growth” that harms and growth that improves is to borrow from an inspiring presentation by three young leaders at New Lens, a Baltimore-based “youth driven social justice organization that makes art and media about issues where a youth perspective can inspire change.”  All three of the kids on stage, from 16 year-old Daniel Brogden to 23-year old executive director Evelia Miller, were clear, concise, and made some powerful points worth revisiting.

These young filmmakers grew up in what they term “food swamps” – parts of the city that lack access to healthy foods.  Instead, says Taylor Evans, who’s 22 and a lifelong resident of Baltimore, “all we got is chicken boxes, liquor, and hair stores – not even owned by people who live in my neighborhood.” So the “growth” that these stores foster is not in the health of the community, but in the profits of their owners – profits that more than likely leave that community, shrinking its wealth in the process.

Despite already incredible disparities between rich and poor, this growing inequality can be hard to see.  Daniel Brogden admits “It took me two years to see what I witnessed every day.” But this growth in perspective has inspired him to make change, and to build awareness about what New Lens sees as two very different cities – “We need to educate the people in power about what’s really going on.  It’s not that they don’t care, but they just don’t know.”

Still, Evelia reminds us, “Some people do know but still don’t care – I mean it’s seldom the case that people in power make huge mistakes totally by accident.  You just have to care.”

Ultimately, it’s how growth happens that matters.  Is it growth that includes others?  Is it growth that we can all share in?  Or is it simply growth without caring? At the end of the day, “you try to grow something and don’t nurture it, it’s not gonna grow.”


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