Tuesday, April 1

No growth isn't very smart either

In a place like Missoula, its tempting to just freeze time and keep our town the way it is. We're small enough in population so that you run into friends at the grocery store, yet we are large enough to provide many of the cultural activities of a city. The pristine mountains and valleys are still here, yet we are seeing them slowly covered over in a carpet of sprawl. Crime levels are relatively low. It seems like a great time to circle the wagons and protect what is here before it's gone.

Yet, this is impossible. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once remarked, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Movement and change are realities that cannot simply be shrugged away. Cities are not abstract entities that can be artificially tweaked and assigned certain properties, but they grow organically like a plant in response to sunlight and water. Regulating new housing out of existence will merely channel the growth in different ways, as the river flows down the path of least resistance.

A no growth policy in a desirable town will result in another Aspen, Colorado. On the surface, it looks like there will be winners and losers. The winners: independently wealthy, retirees, non-resident property owners. Losers: poor, young people starting careers, and renters. Yet, at a deeper level, everyone will be losers. Jane Jacobs has drawn attention to the natural synergy developed in cites that have a true diversity of people, younger and older, service industry and creatives, commerce in all of its variety. With the loss of diversity, so goes the energy, innovation, and essential lifeblood of the community. A real city would be transformed into a mere plastic representation of a city for tourists.

But the biggest selling point of no growth is its benefit to the environment. Wouldn't cutting off growth at least protect the land? Superficially yes, but ultimately no. Local growth policy has no effect whatsoever on birth rates, death rates, or even international migration patterns. It would merely shuffle the same total number of people to a different place in the United States. The reason this would have a net negative effect on global energy usage and carbon emissions is pretty simple. First, economically polarized communities are not at all self-sustaining. Workers will have to be transported in from somewhere else to serve the wealthy, and this is hard on the planet. Secondly, if communities with the political wherewithal to manage growth in sustainable ways opt to cut it off entirely than all growth will be diverted to sprawling metropolises like Houston, who could frankly care less.

The genius of smart growth is its navigation between these poles. Sure, the fact that "smart growth" is endorsed by both the Sierra Club and the National Association of Home Builders is more a testament to the slipperiness of language than it is an instance of the lion laying down with the lamb (who wants "dumb growth"?), yet this only underscores the need for objective and observable criteria. The key really is concentration of development. Missoula could easily welcome each and every person who wishes to live here a place into the heart of town, within city limits, and simultaneously stop sprawl entirely. But the sticks of peripheral regulation should never outpace the carrots of density incentives.


wild chicken said...

Who is proposing to cut off growth? Certainly not OPG or city council, which seem ready to approve just about any development that comes along. I wonder why - property taxes perhaps?

If the builders were smart right now they would put the brakes on themselves, but some just don't know how.

Daniel Nairn said...

I don't specifically know anyone here who wants this, but I have heard that people do bring no-growth up sometimes and I've seen it expressed for other places.

Really, this post wasn't so much a response to anything, but just me working some thoughts out on paper. I'm still trying to figure out where I stand on these issues.

It really is amazing how many developers are going full steam ahead in this economic climate. I don't understand it.

wild chicken said...

Come to think of it, there have been development moratoriums in other places. Someone I know suggested it for Miller Creek. I can understand why.