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Taming growth; maintaining livability.

In hundreds of Western small cities and towns, particularly in tourist oriented states like Oregon, Arizona and Colorado, citizens are grappling over issues related to growth, environmental purity and quality of life.

And it isn't only the "big" cities that are debating the issues. Even towns of a few thousand are concerned about what recent upswings in population are doing to their livability.

Trouble in Paradise

For example, a recent issue of Pacific Northwest Magazine, in profiling some "paradisiacal" small towns like Sandpoint, Idaho; Prineville, Oregon and Homer, Alaska (populations all under 6,000), noted that "front page news" had to do with traffic congestion, zoning and subdivision development, etc.

Much of the planning and intervention that ends up being enacted is, alas, reactive - a subdivision is proposed and developers and activist citizens draw sides in a modern day face-off at the OK Corral.

At one time in our history there were very few controls, such as zoning regulations, building codes and land use plans. Today we have all manner of ways to deal with growth, but still little overall perspective on its bents/drawbacks. We've never been able o satisfactorily integrate the needs of human beings with those of the natural universe around us. And true efforts to do that have only really sprung from the first Earth Day, 1970.

Even today, which way a community ends up going on a preservation/ development continuum has a lot to do with who can bully their ideas into prominence at city council or planing board meetings. Some towns may be able to maintain annual housing starts at a percentage of the overall housing stock (say, 2%) or establish greenbelts/conservancies to head off development in the first place. Other towns, pressured by business and commercial interests, may sprout subdivisions, malls and golf courses overnight in a frantic effort to capitalize on in-migrating new residents.

A very few towns find some kind of balance in between. Perhaps they have "built-in" advantages in the first place, like plenty of open space and little industry. But some regions, like Southern California where the author grew up, completely blow it in one direction, and go into decline (or obsolescence, as planner/professor jack Lessinger, Ph.D., calls it), as a sort of developmental cancer sets in from the inside out.

There is truly no one more knowledgeable about how the forces of in-migration/growth affect locations than one who daily evaluates communities from a variety of quality of life (qol) factors for disenchanted urban clients. Yet this is the calling of the Greener Pastures Institute, which may be the only organization in the U.S. with such a mandate.

From GPI's vantage point a community's vitality springs as much from its overall size and location as it does from the quality of its citizenry. Population parameters may mean little to most people who, as we've seen, seem to fuss over the same issues whether their town is big or small. But after evaluating towns on our own and heeding the advice of a handful of experts sensitive to qol concerns, certain patterns of population emerge.

Those who live in what many call mid-sized or second tier cities of under 200,000 in recreational areas 25 or more miles from large urban centers might well count their blessings. Although "urban," they avoid many f the problems that perhaps two-thirds of Americans encounter daily living in megalopolises such as increasingly exist along the Eastern Seaboard, West Coast and parts of the Midwest.

The "mid-size" city, for example, comes out smelling like a rose in two studies by the Zero Population Growth (ZPG) organization, which has developed "tests" for child stress and environmental stress. Their findings are far-reaching because, to the best of my knowledge, they are the first to correlate population issues with quality of life issues in community life. Money magazine also annually ranks our metros and consistently demonstrates that the most livable cities are mid-sized, though they have yet to conclude that larger places should take a lesson from them and, perhaps, scale back.

Small cities have appeal

Those who may be even more fortunate are those who live in what author/demographer G. Scott Thomas calls "micropolitan" small cities. These communities, not a part of the government's metropolitan statistical areas (MSA's) - generally known to be our metropolises - have populations between 15,000 and 45,000. Few are able to find a job or start a business in such places but they are, today, often communities with urban amenities like community colleges, airports, cable tv and many outdoor recreation pursuits. Thomas has identified about 219 of them.

An even further delineation of community vitality has recently been made by Norman Crampton, who wrote a book about the "best" small towns in America, towns of between 5,000 and 15,000 population. Obviously, this was not an exhaustive survey, since only 100 were profiled out of a probable universe of 5,000 or more. But his findings are useful in rounding out the literature on how population parameters affect livability.

We should know by now that most of the largest urban areas (GPI recently deemed 500,000+ population places "the real dinosaurs" in a bow to the popularity of the movie Jurassic Park) are a mess and not likely to get better anytime soon. Big cities seem to only favor the highly paid professionals (becoming scarcer and scarcer), the wealthy, or the ambitious young who somehow, through assets or acumen, can hold their fingers in a dike of social and environmental problems that threatens to collapse at any moment.

But few cognoscenti will come forward and roundly condemn the idea (much less the reality) of the megalopolis. In fact, many of our highly expensive social programs are designed to constantly "repair" or "save" it, such as economic block grants. We might do better to just scrap or dismantle the biggest urban areas and start over, relocating the citizens to less blighted areas.

Having recognized that mid-sized or micropolitan may be best, we should start to utilize them as some sort of models for the rest of the nation. But do we hear planners or activist citizens talking about "limiting growth up to the mid-sized model?" Far from it. There is simply no public perception of this as a reasonable standard in the first place. In fact, were anyone to try to propound these ideas at a meeting discussing growth in a town already at the mid-sized level, they would quickly be dispensed with, I'm sure.

The quality of our lives within community, neighborhood and even family may be directly proportional to the size of our towns. So it makes perfect sense for us to start visualizing what sort of place we want to live in.

For example, a town of 5,000 may not want to exceed 15,000 because, based on the findings of people like Norman Crampton, the citizens would prefer not to have franchise food restaurants, mini-malls and a bigger city hall (more taxes to pay). So what do citizens do? They vote to limit population growth past 15,000 in perpetuity, and allow no one else in past that limit unless somebody dies or moves out. And to ensure that communities, say, within 30 miles do not encroach of their "breathing room," they can buy up as much land as they can afford, rezoning it or setting it into conservancies.

If there is some other way to keep community at the population and livability levels their citizens choose for them in a democratic process, I don't know what it would be. While some may argue that we can "densify" areas up to some unspecified point where we aren't feeling, as a species, hemmed in, I don't really buy it. There are economies of scale that may not truly fit human beings' need for territory. Most of us would not choose to live in a condo any more than we would choose to live in an overdense big city. And what we need to do is build into our towns our ideas of livability, which increasingly should include parks, community squares, cottage or home-based businesses, and even vacant lots where kids can experience nature first hand. (Both Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson had some of those ideas.)

Once again, I have to emphasize this: overall quality of life is mainly influenced by the size of our communities in conjunction with the activism of their citizens. And it is now possible to frame "lifestyle criteria" based on what ideal size we want our towns to be. Without this we will go to city council meetings bent on grinding our own axes over niche issues like the number of street lamps or how many trees are being cut down for a new mall. We must develop an awareness that we can work together to solve our day to day problems but only if the population can be stabilized. Without that, ultimately, we will. simply fail to keep a handle on the problems of growth because we will have refused to come to terms with its source.

And as the world's population escalates to 10 billion by the year 2050 or so (from 500 million in the 1800s), we shall recognize finally?) that our problems of community life are a mere microcosm of what's happening on a far larger planetary scale - and start to do something about them.
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Author:Seavey, William L.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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