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The Joys and Challenges of Being a Hot City

Nashville is growing remarkably fast — and encountering serious growing pains. The next steps the city takes could mean the difference between transformation or having the infrastructure of an overgrown small town.

Downtown Nashville.
(David Kidd/Governing)
There’s growth, and then there’s boomtown growth. Nashville has become a genuine boomtown, and its present hypergrowth phase is transforming the city in fundamental ways. But much needs to be done. This boomtown phase offers a genuine but limited-time opportunity for Nashville’s civic leaders to level up their city. It’s an opportunity they can’t afford to miss.

In 1990, Nashville barely qualified as a major city at all. The metro area had just over a million people. The city seemed large at 488,000, but this was mostly due to a city-county merger. The freeway system attested to its sub-major league status. It never even got an interstate beltway. Nashville was in essence a smaller city or overgrown small town. It also had a lot of poverty. Its historic built environment is reflective of these things. Nashville had lots of small, single-family, worker-cottage type housing, for example, with little in the way of higher density or urban-style development outside of downtown. A generation ago, few people wanted to move there, and local businesses struggled to recruit out-of-town talent in the same way Rust Belt cities do today.

What a difference 30 years makes. Nashville is now one of America’s hottest destinations, with people streaming into it from all over the country, including large flows from coastal elite cities. The business recruiting challenge has reversed, with businesses having to vet whether or not perspective employees actually want a job, or are just using it as a way to get to Nashville. The regional population has almost doubled. Nashville is now far more than a music city. Hot chicken and other cultural products have become national sensations.

The city has also seen an orgy of real estate development that is showing what boomtown levels of growth can do. As noted, much of the city was originally developed with housing that is now obsolete. This housing is being demolished and replaced with new buildings reflective of today’s more upscale demographic.

But what’s unique about boomtown growth is that it affords a true transformation. In Nashville, this includes significant densification allowed by a permissive zoning regime, with decayed worker cottages giving way to two- or four-unit developments. Entire neighborhoods are effectively being rebuilt and replaced wholesale.

This speed and scale of transformation changes the entire calculus of location decisions. In cities that are growing less rapidly than Nashville, the existing character of a neighborhood heavily shapes people’s choices on whether or not to move there. That’s because even if the neighborhood is seeing strong investment, its current character will remain for a long time. It may take over a decade to repair or replace dilapidated properties. It’s much more likely that existing buildings will be renovated than demolished, hence the existing feel and built scale will remain.

In Nashville, by contrast, newcomers can buy into a changing neighborhood confident that it will be completely transformed in a reasonable period of time. A friend of mine who relocated there from New York City moved into a house across the street from a small trailer park, certain that within five years it would be gone and replaced with new development. That would almost certainly not happen in a non-boomtown city. Indeed, the trailer park was sold to a major developer for $10.5 million a year after my friend moved in.

This is not good for everyone, of course. If you are a renter in one of these changing districts, you are probably going to be displaced. Rising real estate prices throughout the region will make it tougher for people to find replacement housing. This is a real issue that needs to be addressed. But whether for good or ill, this is what is taking place.

While the market is transforming Nashville’s demographics, economy, and built environment, some things are not under market control and are not being transformed, notably the city’s deficient and obsolete infrastructure.

Nashville has a serious and growing traffic problem. Its freeway and arterial street networks have poor designs and are not sufficient for local growth levels. The streets of the city are also obsolete. Only 37 percent of them have sidewalks. There are residential streets less than two miles from downtown with drainage ditches — no curbs, storm drains, parking, bike lanes or sidewalks. The public transportation system is very small. The parks system is insufficient.

While the city is in a boomtown, hypergrowth phase, it needs to find a way to address some of these problems. Realistically, this will require billions of dollars in investment and overcoming significant political opposition. This is what America’s great cities did in the past, when they built huge waterworks projects or vast rail and highway networks.

Boomtown growth doesn’t last forever. At some point Nashville’s growth will plateau or at least slow, and some other city will be the hot destination. If Nashville hasn’t seized its moment to pull off a real infrastructure transformation by then, it could be saddled with the infrastructure of an overgrown small town — and the problems that come with it — forever.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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