There are two arguments defending sprawl in the West that never seem to end, and I hope I can convince you that both are flawed.
The first argument is that current
residents must not try to "shut the door" on growth because they
have no right to deny others what they enjoy. Forget for a moment
that no one is talking about stopping growth -- only slowing it
I maintain that the only moral justification for
ever limiting immigration into a city, region or nation is a
convincing case that the anticipated population level will be
seriously detrimental to the existing way of life and/or to the
natural environment. This has never been true for the United States
because we have always needed immigrants to fill our low-end jobs,
and these immigrants are almost never the ones trashing our
American Indians before
"Manifest Destiny" had a clear case for keeping newcomers out. They
may not have foreseen the environmental destruction, but they
correctly saw what would happen to their way of life and tried to
defend it. Contemporary communities and regions can sometimes make
a similar case. An example is my town of Flagstaff, Ariz., where
almost most everyone agrees that our growth from 30,000 to 60,000
people in the past 20 years has drastically changed our environment
-- and the assumption that we were in control of local events.
We can see it in the loss of local businesses to big-box
stores; in the disappearance of open space, including treasured
places; in the trashing of our surrounding national forests and the
depletion of our groundwater; and in traffic congestion and a
noticeable decline in civility.
Apologists for rampant
development say Flagstaff is still better than most places.
They’re happy to trade these "nuisances" for the convenience,
alleged savings and "amenities" of bigness. Thus the plethora of
look-alike shopping malls and chain restaurants; the skateboard
tracks; Hollywood-style movie complexes, huge fortress hotels and
bottom-end jobs. Of course, the development industry loves it.
The second argument defending all this is a virtual
throwing-up of hands: There's nothing to be done. Nonsense; we have
the tools to manage growth. Cities such as Boulder and Portland
have shown the way, though they've made mistakes we can all learn
from. Full-impact fees, growth boundaries and downzoning are all
tools waiting to be used, though in some places, notably Arizona,
changes in laws are needed to empower, or at least not penalize,
local government for using them.
The fairest and most
straightforward tool -- a limit on building permits -- remains
mostly unused because of the political power of the development
industry and the timidity of local government. Our leaders’
fear of lawsuits is a political and psychological problem more than
a legal one. In 1974, the city of Petaluma, Calif., passed a
residential cap. Developers went to court and lost. The cap is
still in effect and today is well accepted by locals.
Growth apologists argue that as long as population grows and people
are free to move about as they wish, we have to accommodate the
inevitable and praise developers willing to do it better. I think
this argument fails at the local level.While we may not be able to
slow population growth statewide, we can let cities like Flagstaff
choose to limit themselves.
Salt Lake City or Phoenix may
be able to absorb another 60,000 people over the next 20 years and
never notice it; doubling Flagstaff to 120,000 in 20 years will
destroy what we have forever.
We don't have to cave in.
In November 2000, big money (about $4 million) from the development
industry defeated Arizona’s Citizen's Growth Initiative by
2-to-1with a highly misleading last-minute media blitz. Yet bigger
money -- some $20 million over 15 years -- couldn't buy a massive
development at the Grand Canyon. There, Canyon Forest Village lost
2-to-1 in a county referendum in the same election. With far less
money, the opposition was able to convince voters that the
environmental and economic impacts were too negative. You can win a
really big one.
Since I’m not talking about halting
growth, does slowing it down even matter? Yes, because it gives
communities more time to plan. Perhaps more importantly, things can
change in 20 years (maybe even state legislatures). But once the
land is bulldozed, paved and gentrified, communities and open space
are gone -- if not forever, surely for generations.