Thursday, March 03, 2005

On Viewing Growth

Working in a high growth county in a state undergoing significant population growth itself presents a unique set of challenges to us planners. How those challenges are met determine how well a jurisdiction’s planning department is viewed.

The continuous addition of people to an area results in the ever-present need to add a whole range of goods and services to support the newly enlarged population. Some of these services are provided via the market place, such as the opening of a new store to serve a newly constructed residential area. Most however, have to be supplied by the government. Too often, the measurement of good planning is how rapidly and comprehensively the government can provide the needed services. An area experiencing rapid growth that has adequate transportation (road and transit), uncrowded schools, sufficient parklands and generally appealing aesthetics is all too often referred to as “well planned.” Jurisdictions that have planning departments that adhere to the neo-traditional tenets espoused by Peter Calthorpe or Andres Duany are sometimes even referred to “Smart Growth” communities.

But how smart is this growth? And is growth itself, really smart? In most cases growth is viewed favorably, even positively. A growing population means to many vitality, diversification, and new opportunities. It signifies a positive outlook on the future of the community. This viewpoint is further supported by many jurisdictions’ use of population size measurements (publicizing how many residents) to gauge their comparative importance to other locales. Growth is not limited to pure population figures either. An area must also be increasing its relative wealth as well. New commercial ventures should be started, new jobs created and the overall health of the local economy improved. Whole organizations, like the chambers of commerce and other lobbying groups have sprung up to promote the prospect of a perpetually growing community.

In many cases, growth is seen as a solution to a problem and not a problem in-and-by itself. A city or county that fails to have any population or economic gains is often viewed negatively and referred to as “stagnant”, “a backwater”, “left behind”, or outright “failing” by the media, local officials and even many citizens themselves. The absence of growth is seen as a problem and many “solutions” are geared toward solving this problem. Stagnant local economy? Encourage an employer to relocate. Not enough children in your local schools? Allow more subdivisions.

Growth seldom pays for itself however. Even in communities where the developers are forced to pick up the direct costs of growth, by constructing or funding infrastructure improvements (roads, schools, services), indirect costs are incurred. A larger community demands more commercial opportunities, which results in commercial developments. A larger community needs more jobs, which depends on a sufficient number of employers. Larger communities require higher local government staffing levels. This is a result from the increasing workloads caused by a greater number of residents requiring more specialized services. Finally the addition of new families will inevitably result in continued growth pressures long after active development ceases. A number of communities in California and elsewhere have resorted to the use of a growth moratorium to slow or stop construction of new units. That does not stop the growth pressure though. Demographics make it clear that those children will eventually form households for themselves, demanding new units in the process even if no new residents move in.

Planning for growth seldom extends beyond the accommodation factors (roads, schools, services etc). The fundamental “big picture” questions seldom are contemplated. Is there enough water for the entire population? Will there be enough energy for an increasing population? Will the air quality continue to be impacted? It seems those questions are never answered or worse, overridden for economic reasons. In the California Environmental Quality Act better known as CEQA (pronounced See-Kwa) a jurisdiction has the option to essentially ignore a significant impact in an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that cannot be mitigated, by making a statement of overriding consideration. This statement allows the city or county to justify permitting this project by stating reasons why the known environmental impact should be overridden. Typically those statements revolve around economic arguments like: “this project will provide X million dollars of revenue to city coffers or employ Y number of individuals”.

Ultimately, these “big picture” issues form the eventual limiting factors for growth in any location. Whether its land, resources or pollution these issue need to be addressed or they will eventually stop the development process dead in its tracks. If any one of these manifests without adequate planning, the area will exceed its local carrying capacity and be forced into a decline. We now have an understanding of this planet’s ultimate limitations. What we have not apparently reconciled is that unlimited growth on a limited planet is not possible. Past attempts solving former limitations (food supply, energy) only resulted in more growth. Unless we understand this concept we are doomed to overshoot and collapse.

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