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.