Beyond the exurban dream

  • Paul Larmer

 

Across the West, people are buying up small (and sometimes not so small) pieces of the countryside, and transforming them with roads, cars and pets into sprawling replicas of the places they just left. It’s an all-too-familiar story, and it has become all too easy to ignore. Another alfalfa field converted into a mall? So what? Another ridgeline spiked with trophy homes? Nothing new about that.

Which is why, a little over a year ago, I found myself at a land-use conference in Denver, trying to figure out how High Country News could wake people up to the West’s growth issues. There, I ran into veteran reporter Allen Best, who was noodling on the very same subject. Allen told me that HCN needed to look closely at two aspects of the growth phenomenon: the rapid expansion of large-lot "exurbs," and the small but promising movement to make the region’s cities more livable. They were two sides of the same coin, he said.

Allen — who recently moved to Denver, after living and reporting for a couple of decades in Colorado’s small ski towns — is eminently qualified to do these stories. He saw the steady growth of Vail and other resort towns in the 1980s and 1990s, and noticed the trend toward high income and low density. He had an epiphany in the mid-’90s, when county officials approved a high-density condominium project west of Vail. Not long afterward, the developer returned for permission to create some big lots for big houses.

"I called to find out why — was it because there was more money in big lots?" he recalls. "The planner for the developer was cranky: ‘Do you guys in the newspapers ever consider we might do something simply because it’s the right thing to do?’ "

Even at the time, Allen doubted that low-density development skittering across the countryside was the right thing to do. His cover story in this issue adds weight to those doubts. Exurbia is not only tough on air, water and wildlife; it is also very expensive. And all of us are paying for it: The costs of maintaining and enlarging roads and providing fire protection alone make sprawling ranchettes far more costly than even traditional suburbs.

But the urge to live in the hinterlands — and to possess a piece of the landscape — is deeply ingrained in the Western psyche. What will it take to change it? Maybe nothing short of an economic crisis brought on by soaring energy costs.

Short of that, citizens can push their local governments to truly account for the costs of sprawl, and demand that they adopt regulations and incentives that encourage dense development patterns. And finally, we can all hold up a new breed of Western hero: the kind of person who loves to visit the mountains and deserts, but is perfectly content to live in close proximity to others, take public transportation, and explore the riches of the urban wilderness.

Those urban pioneers are out there. You can read about one of them on page 7. Allen Best will bring you more of their stories later this year.