Less Than Zero?
(Oregon Planners' Journal, May 1996)
By Richard Carson
I would like to ponder an idea that no one-- not even a planner -- has been willing to speak of. In the recent debate over whether the Portland metropolitan area should expand its urban growth boundary or not, we have been presented with only two viewpoints. However, there is a third that no one is willing to even whisper.
The first point-of-view is presented by the Homebuilders Association of Metropolitan Portland, and other development interests. It says that we need to add more land to the urban growth boundary so we can build more homes, factories and shopping centers. The other view is presented by the recently created Zero Option Committee. It advocates no expansion of the urban growth boundary at this time. This group is a coalition of local governments who believe we don't need move the urban growth boundary, at this time, because we have sufficient lands to accommodate such growth through increased levels of urban density. Both arguments agree that the urban growth boundary most be moved in the future.
This debate has been extremely civilized and we should all applaud the participants for their ability to listen and learn. However, there is a third and more radical option. We could just stop growing forever. This idea has been quietly, politely and politically ignored by all parties for fear the debate would soon spin out of control. On this point I strongly disagree. We are only as wise as the breadth of the debate we engage in. When we stifle or limit such debate we only cheat ourselves.
I put forward the following argument: There maybe be an optimum population and geographic size for a metropolitan area. A size where:
- People still feel they were part of a definable and understandable community;
- Social issues are still manageable from both an economic and efficiency point-of-view;
- Traffic congestion is tolerable; and
- Air and water quality are still good. In Oregon, the obvious progression would be to move population and economic growth from Portland metropolitan area first to the Interstate 5 metropolitan areas of Salem-Keizer, then to the Eugene-Springfield. It would be prudent to consider the futures of the such fast growing areas as the Medford-Ashland-Grants Pass area and the Bend-Redmond-Prineville area.
This radical concept is actually imbedded in Metro's voter approved charter - it's called "carrying capacity." The whole point of carrying capacity is that there is a point where the population growth starts to degrade the clean air and water quality in the region. It is also the point where natural areas and wildlife become permanently diminished by human activities. Metro's only position on its own charter mandate is contained in a study of growth issues which said, "as we learn more about sustainability and carrying capacity we may need to revisit our growth options." One can only assume that this vague statement could mean that we will consider acting on the Metro Charter directive when the air and water are so polluted that people could start dying in alarming numbers. Certainly that has been the approach in Los Angeles.
A Sense of Place
The best way to reinforce the identity of a place is to give it definable edges. We can stop "sprawl" by creating greenbelts around cities. Many cities have stopped growth and created such greenbelts. The fact they were once the hunting preserves of Kings and Queens should not deter us from creating such places citizens of a place. What Europeans accidentally inherited we can intentionally create.
There is a story that we urban planners don't want to tell. Certainly the homebuilders don't want you to even think about it. It is the story of a growth alternative. The story is that when Statewide Planning Goals were adopted in 1973 they simple bought us all time.
A Matter of Traffic Congestion?
In the end the Portland metro area will have the same traffic congestion as Seattle and Los Angeles. Certainly our quality-of-life and air quality will be no better. Make no mistake, gridlock is in our future. And there is only one viable solution. It is a solution that violates a basic tenant of the state's land use planning program and of the developer's credo -- stop growth.
Is there an optimum size at which a major metropolitan area must stop growing, if is to avoid traffic congestion? What we aren't being told is that transit will never reduce traffic congestion. We support transit because we think it is a much cleaner and efficient means of providing transportation. In fact, it is the only alternative left to those people who need it - the poor, the young, the elderly, the handicapped and other people who either can't or don't want to drive.
And Land Use Planning?
The Region 2040 program did not include a "no growth" option. It did have a satellite cities option which said that we could reduce the region's urban growth expansion by letting growth spill over into places like Newberg, North Plains, Sandy and Canby. What no one wants to say is that the regional demand for housing would overwhelm these towns and they would eventually become bedroom cities like Beaverton, Hillsboro, Wilsonville and Gresham.
We need to admit the Portland metro area has reached its optimum carrying capacity, hold the urban growth boundary in place and build a new metropolitan area far enough away that it remains independent. Such a place is Salem. It is an hour away and we can simple try and replicate the same kind of urban amenities that help the Portland metropolitan area grow. Like an international airport.
Richard Carson is the managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal and a board member of the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association.