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If we all live to be 120 years old, we'll have a lot of things to worry about besides land-use planning. But consider this: serious people involved in biomedical research think that such longevity is likely, if not necessarily imminent, and if it were to transpire it would in fact have huge implications for the design of our communities. It would bring huge population growth, far more old people and a far smaller ratio of children - and drive growth patterns towards urban centers and away from the the suburban fringe. That was one of the more provocative arguments put forth last week at NewWest.Net's 1st annual Planning in the West conference. Keynote speaker Arthur C. Nelson, Director of Metropolitan Research at the University of Utah, said these kinds of drastically changing demographics would alter land-use patterns in ways we are only beginning to understand. This kind of thinking is more than a little removed from the quotidian arguments over planning that still rage across the West. Just last week, residents of the Flathead County, Montana town of Somers almost came to blows over whether a preliminary discussion of a neighborhood plan for the lakeside community was appropriate. Here in Missoula, a city council meeting on Monday went past midnight as people argued over a new zoning code, and especially whether the city should allows "accessory dwelling units" - which might, not incidentally, be an important type of housing for an aging population, but are considered anathema by University-area residents who fear they will fill up with students. Yet planning, by its very nature, is all about the long term, and it can be a lot more inspiring than the day-to-day politics of subdivisions and infill and roads and sewer systems. Here are a few of the highlights from our recent conference:

Planning in the West: A Few Lessons

If we all live to be 120 years old, we’ll have a lot of things to worry about besides land-use planning. But consider this: serious people involved in biomedical research think that such longevity is likely, if not necessarily imminent, and if it were to transpire it would in fact have huge implications for the design of our communities. It would bring huge population growth, far more old people and a far smaller ratio of children – and drive growth patterns towards urban centers and away from the the suburban fringe.

That was one of the more provocative arguments put forth last week at NewWest.Net’s 1st annual Planning in the West conference. Keynote speaker Arthur C. Nelson, Director of Metropolitan Research at the University of Utah, said these kinds of drastically changing demographics would alter land-use patterns in ways we are only beginning to understand.

This kind of thinking is more than a little removed from the quotidian arguments over planning that still rage across the West. Just last week, residents of the Flathead County, Montana town of Somers almost came to blows over whether a preliminary discussion of a neighborhood plan for the lakeside community was appropriate. Here in Missoula, a city council meeting on Monday went past midnight as people argued over a new zoning code, and especially whether the city should allows “accessory dwelling units” – which might, not incidentally, be an important type of housing for an aging population, but are considered anathema by University-area residents who fear they will fill up with students.

Yet planning, by its very nature, is all about the long term, and it can be a lot more inspiring than the day-to-day politics of subdivisions and infill and roads and sewer systems. Here are a few of the highlights from our recent conference:

– Keynote speaker Chris Duerksen, managing director of Clarion Associates, offered a very entertaining presentation on a model zoning code that could make our cities and towns far more energy efficient and otherwise sustainable. Too often, said Duerksen, sustainability is a marketing term, but there are myriad things that can be done to make it real – things as simple as allowing people to hang their clothes on a clothesline (which is prohibited in many towns for aesthetic reasons). Removing obstacles, creating incentives, and enacting standards are the three legs of the sustainable zoning stool, said Duerkesen.

– My big takeaway from the panel on sustainable planning, which featured Los Angeles-based LEED consultant Ryan McEvoy, Diane Sugimura of the Seattle Dept. of Planning and Development, Rachel Weiner of Idaho Smart Growth, and Boulder-based landscape architect David Kahn, was the extent to which green building practices that were on the cutting edge only a few years ago are now all but standard in many places – and cities and private developers alike are pushing to take the next steps. Green is not a luxury to be pursued only in flush times, but rather a necessary dimension of virtually all development in the future.

– Rich Franco of Seattle-based architecture firm Mithun showed how a comprehensive analysis of place – both scientific and social – could yield very creative and satisfying planning solutions for projects as diverse as a Seattle suburb and an Indian reservation. It’s remarkable to see the extent to which architeture is becoming an inter-disciplinary profession, integrating planning, land design, history and sociology.

– A discussion of transportation highlighted the remarkable success of state of Utah in developing rail transit in the Salt Lake corridor. Even in Idaho, where the state government has been engaged in a bitter battle over road funding, there are success stories: a streetcar for downtown Boise now seems quite likely to happen. And Nick Kaufman, of Missoula’s WGM Group, made some great points about how forward thinking on infrastructure development is really the key to addressing transportation issues.

– Boise developer Mark Rivers cautioned that the economic meltdown was not a cyclical phenomenon, but rather a more fundamental reset, and thus a return to go-go-growth – and the policy concerns that go along with it – was nowhere on the horizon. If you’re a developer with a bank loan coming due, projections about what might happen 20 or 30 or 40 years from now are not something you spend a lot of time thinking about. He advocated creative financing solutions, many of them with a government component, as to the key to new development projects. “I’m not a big government guy and Idaho isn’t a big government state, but there is a time and place for governments to play a role,” Rivers said.

– The big obstacles to good planning remain political, in more ways than one. In Montana especially, as Warren Vaughan of Gallatin County pointed out, getting buy-in for the very idea of planning is still an issue; even where that hurdle has been cleared, there are still huge problems with the inherently inter-jurisdictional nature of planning, said Boise developer Bill Clark. Rivers and wildlife corridors and roads and rail lines don’t respect the city or county lines, and that creates a lot of challenges.

If the economic slump means no more growth, a lot of these issues will be moot. But most of the evidence suggests that population growth is here to stay in the West – and we’ll need all the creativity of the planning and development community to make the most of it.

Our thanks once again to Susan Mason and the Boise State University Department of Public Policy & Administration’s Community and Regional Planning Program for a great partnership on the 1st annual Planning in the West.

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10 comments

  1. Planners know everything. They know how far you should live from your job, what kind of transportation you should use, how big your back yard should be. They know exactly how cities and forests should grow. So if you want to live in pleasant communities,enjoy beautiful wilderness, and get to work on time, you should put them in charge. But before you do, you better review their track record. In case after case government planning frequently causes the very problems it is intended to solve. So called “smart growth” has resulted in unaffordable housing, more congestion and increased crime.

  2. Dittos!

  3. Ok Mickey, time to call you out. What does ‘smart growth’ mean to you?
    How do you justify that planning has resulted in unaffordable housing, congestion and crime?
    Care to provide at least one ‘case after case’?
    Sounds like the problem you have with planning is you don’t know what you’re talking about.
    Put up or shut up!

  4. I can agree that there’s evidence that population growth is here to stay in the West, but it seems to me that there’s also evidence that it’s not here to stay forever. I can also agree that planning is intrinsically a long term thing, but I think we all know that one person’s definition of long term means 10 years while another person might define it as 20, 50, 100 years, or more.

    So, for how long can the West sustain the population growth that has become the main foundation of the New West economy? In hazarding my own guessed answer to that question, I find myself in the company of a growing number of Westerners — native and newcomer alike — wondering how for how long our region’s population can grow before heat and drought make it just inhospitable enough to lose a very great deal of its still-bright appeal.

    Is that day far ahead? Should we already be planning on it?

    I can only speak for myself, and as a close watcher of what the experts are finding, and reporting, not as an expert myself. That said, I think that next year’s New West conference should include a panel on our region’s prospects for heatwaves and droughts.

    This week, Nature — one of the world’s heavyweight science journals — published an article which cited evidence that the West will be the nation’s hardest hit by increasingly frequent heatwaves.

    The West won’t be alone, according to evidence discovered during the sleuthing by researchers who compiled the evidence. Generally, the evidence points to the extreme heatwave that formerly happened only once in 50 years becoming the extreme heatwave that comes more than once per decade.

    It’s just that this recently reported evidence points toward the West getting its once-in-50-year heatwaves up to 8 times per decade, while other parts of the country just might get away with once-in-50-year heatwaves coming at them 3-6 times per decade.

    Now, we all know that science is an ongoing process, and that no single report of evidence can be enough to serve as a reliable guide. And yet, at the same time, I think we can all dig around in Google, and pretty easily find that there were already a number of peer-reviewed reports before this latest one, all of them citing evidence that the West is headed for a future as a hotter place to live and work.

    So, if the region really will be getting hot in a way that makes it less attracive, should be plan for it? Does it fit within the model of planning as a long term thing?

    The recent study looked at the periods from 2010-2019, 2020-2029, and 2030-2039. Beginning in Mexico, the projected increase of heat extremes will spread north decade by decade, so that in the period 2030-2039 heat extremes will be wilting the Southern U.S. Rockies with a frequency up to 8 times per decade, and even British Columbia will be hit by heat extremes 5 or 6 times a decade.

    If this evidence holds up to inevitable futher testing, it looks to me like something of real consequence, and it may even be worthy of a panel at next year’s New West conference.

    Reference

    Nature Reports-Climate Change
    May 27, 2009
    American west threatened by more heatwaves than past models have predicted.
    http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090527/full/news.2009.518.html

  5. According to smart growth propaganda, smart growth is an attractive vision of people living and working in pedestrian-friendly communities, walking to the store, taking light rail on longer trips, and using the automobile only as a last resort. Smart growth supposedly allows urban areas to grow without increasing congestion, pollution, taxes, or the loss of open space. The reality of smart growth is precisely the opposite. 1. smart growth not only causes congestion, but many smart growth advocates believe that increased congestion is needed to make it work. 2. Even with increased congestion, smart growth does not lead significant numbers of people to trade in their cars for transit, walking, or cycling. 3. Smart growth’s effects on air pollution are non-existent, since the effects of increased congestion on auto emissions offset the minor reductions in auto driving. 4. Plenty of research demonstrate that restrictive zoning a la smart growth causes single-family home prices to rise and reduces the housing available to low income people. 5. Smart growth imposes extra burdens on taxpayers to cover the costs of subsidized rail transit and subsidized high-density housing. 6. Smart growth leads to increase costs for consumer goods due to a reduction in retail competition and an emphasis on small, noncompetitive stores. 7. Smart growth causes a tremendous loss of both individual freedom and mobility. Ultimately, smart growth is about power. Who gets to decide how you travel and where you live, work, and shop: you or a government planner who thinks cars are immoral and that you should walk to the grocery store and take mass transit to work?iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiisssiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

  6. Mickey, your sweeping condemnations of planning are not accompanied by a single example or piece of factual evidence, and thus are not convincing at all. Can you point readers to any specific cases where planning has had all these terrible impacts that you assert? Nobody thinks cars are immoral, just that sometimes other transit solutions are often more practical, less expensive, and more environmentally sound. That’s just common sense. Government provides huge subsidies to auto travel.

  7. Myth: Transportation subsidies are unfairly biased towards autos and highways, so we must increase transit funding to provide balanced transportation. Reality: At least since 1975, transit subsidies have been tens to hundreds of times greater than highway subsidies. More over, a third of the transit subsidies, are paid directly by auto drivers. Myth: More money for transit will boost ridership; we need to transfer highway dollars to transit and increased state and local taxes for transit agencies. Reality: There has been no relation between transit funding and transit ridership; despite huge increases in transit funding over the past two decades, ridership has been stagnant and falling over the same time period. Myth: Sound land use planning and heavy investments in transit have made European cities more livable and less auto-dependent that American cities. Reality: Despite the fact that most European governments have imposed smart growth-like policies for the past fifty years, European central cities are losing population, their suburbs are rapidly growing, transit ridership is stagnant and auto ownership and driving are rapidly increasing.
    Energy consumption (BTU per passenger mile) based on Table 2.10 from The Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 25-2006, a publication prepared for the U.S. department of energy by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Car, hybrid= 1326 btu/passenger mile, Light & Heavy rail transit=3228btu/passenger mile, Transit bus=4160btu/passenger mile.

  8. I haven’t claimed to be original. I just claim to be right. I cited my sources a couple of times (Books, Papers, Web sites) on this web site and they have been basically ignored, which tells me that “smart growth” is faith based instead of fact based because “smart growth” devotees haven’t even bothered to review a large body of research that contradicts smart growth mythology.

  9. “At least since 1975, transit subsidies have been tens to hundreds of times greater than highway subsidies.”

    Boy, I’d really want to see some backup for that one.

    Actually, there is some truth to your #4. When I took Community and Regional Planning at Boise State a couple of years ago, one of the problems mentioned is that restrictive zoning increases property value, which increases prices, so it gets harder for the blue collar workers required for a society to function to find a place to live. Ketchum, for example.

  10. Too often, debate centers on either/or propositions, you’re either a “free marketer” or a “smart growther”.

    Part of the problem is that the way we live now, with our virtual reliance on oil and coal to power our grid regardless of where we live is simply not a sustainable plan. If we are able to develop cleaner sources of energy production and efficiencies MAYBE we can curb some of these problems, at least the ones related to pollution. The reason people still drive is because its relatively CHEAP. But what is the REAL cost of our oil based economy? We need cleaner power sources!

    The free market obviously hasn’t solved very many of our urban problems either. I think there are far more examples of developers run amuck where money is their bottom line without much thought to what they were building. As if we need more strip malls, many of which are now sitting empty.

    In a good way, I think that there is more of a movement towards dialogue and drilling down into issues but the old paradigm of free market versus government debate will not get us to apt solutions.

    Resort area housing is a tricky one. Why can’t there be zoned districts where there is an assemblage of housing types that incorporated people of various economic groups? I’m not stupid, I get that from an old paradigm perspective the perception would be that if you own a single family residence next to a four-plex for example, that it would be valued than if your house were set in a neighborhood of solely single family residences. But does it necessarily have to be that way or to the degree that it is? Why should all homes be valued solely on price per square foot or where they are – you don’t by cars by the pound!

    The dialogue needs to be opened up so that there are more private/public partnerships. I’m all for private business development but let’s get some real dialogue going that is more cooperative involving people in the community, government, architects, planners, ecologists and developers (to name a few) to build communities that are sustainable for us and the planet.

    We do need a whole systems approach as Lance pointed out. If we don’t address climate change, water usage and general resource efficiencies we are going to be snake bit. We need to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and wake up.

    Our individual rights come with some responsibility to the whole!