Shaping the Sierra

  Even though he is now a professor of planning and landscape architecture at the University of California-Berkeley, Timothy P. Duane manages to fold his childhood memories and love of the "Range of Light" into this hefty and complex book about one of the West's rapidly developing mountain zones.


Like many Westerners with an attachment to a rural place, he is critical of the "equity refugees' bringing their large incomes, trophy homes and un-rural attitudes with them to exurbia. But mostly, this is a detailed, theoretically informed report on development in the Sierra Nevada. His diagnosis is that the growth machine and its economic driving forces, in collusion with the American ambivalence about individual rights and community values, will eventually overwhelm the carrying capacity of Sierran ecology.


Duane makes no simple argument, and the theory may come a bit too fast and furious for many readers. But the book comes together in case studies, especially of the politics of planning in Nevada County, Calif. This is a classic tragicomedy of American land-use planning, in which the creators of a comprehensive plan meant to control growth understated how much growth they had built into the plan, and the growth machine won again. As in an encounter with the Borg on TV's "Star Trek" series, resistance is futile, Duane finds, when it comes to growth. This is especially true on the rapidly appreciating real estate of the New West's most charismatic landscapes.


But this book does not wave a white flag. Duane wants us to resist, to seek ecologically based development. He offers a bio-regional prescription melding ecological analysis with renewed community-scale politics. He wants political subdivisions redrawn to natural boundaries, and he calls for planning that recognizes ecological limits and the value of smaller-scale, collaborative planning.


The prescription is a lot to hope for. I take Duane's analysis to support my conclusion about Western geography: We ain't seen nothing yet. A lot more development is coming, and Duane's analysis, while meant to show the absolute necessity of land-use reform, also shows the improbability of such reform.


Still, perhaps our love of Western landscapes can steer the growth machine in a slightly different direction, and we can thank Duane for using his own love of place to point out the needed course correction.





" Bill Riebsame





Bill Riebsame is an associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


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