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"It is a wonderful guide to community directed, ecologically sensitive development."
Since the 1950s, Americans have been migrating from urban areas of the United States to its rapidly growing suburbs. In our quest for the American dream, we flocked to places like Tysons Corner, Virginia; the San Fernando Valley, California; Aurora, Colorado; and Federal Way, Washington.
Today, these suburbs reveal the downside of 40 years of poorly managed growth: Communities that once promised refuge from the ills of the city have been transformed into congested towns with clogged highways, burgeoning crime rates, and mile after mile of look-alike shopping malls, franchise architecture, and soulless housing tracts.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Americans are once again on the move, this time in a migration that pushes growth even farther into the countryside. Increasing numbers of people are fleeing the suburbs and choosing to live in the small towns and open spaces surrounding America's magnificent national and state parks, wildlife refuges, forests, historic sites, wilderness areas, and other public lands.
Gateway communities—the towns and cities that border these public lands—are the destinations of choice for much of the country's migrating populace. With their scenic beauty and high quality of life, gateway communities have become a magnet for millions of Americans looking to escape the congestion, banality, and faster tempo of life in the suburbs and cities.
Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and St. George, Utah, gateway to Zion National Park, have become havens for retirees looking for a picturesque place to spend their golden years. During the 1980s, the population of Estes Park grew by more than 35 percent; St. George's population doubled.
People who want to live close to recreational opportunities are inundating Maryville, Tennessee, and other communities adjoining Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "East Tennessee has just exploded," says Randy Brown, a Maryville resident, "and the people moving here all want to live near the park."
Thousands of discontented city dwellers from the East and West Coasts are selling their homes and using the profits to relocate to gateway communities with lower costs of living. Termed equity exiles, many of these urban refugees are facing the same congestion and problems they thought they were leaving behind. Traverse City, Michigan; Prescott, Arizona; and Durango, Colorado, are just a few of the gateway communities that are now struggling to cope with growth-related problems. Whatever the reasons behind it, this new wave of migration shows no signs of abating. If current demographic trends continue, gateway communities will experience astronomical growth rates for at least the next 20 years.
Americans have always wanted to spend their leisure time removed from the pressures of their daily lives. Today, they have the financial resources to do so. Sociologists attribute a rising demand for second homes and resort vacations in pristine and scenic areas to the aging of the baby-boom generation. Over the next decade, there will be a 50 percent increase in the number of Americans in the 45–54 age bracket, a group with a significant amount of disposable income and leisure time.
What's more, according to a recent study by economists at Cornell University, baby boomers stand to inherit some $10.4 trillion in stock market gains and real estate assets salted away by their parents. Armed with this inheritance, boomers are expected to double the demand for recreational homes and resort lodging in gateway communities.
Unlike many U.S. cities and suburbs, gateway communities offer what an increasing number of Americans value: a clean environment, safe streets, and a friendly, small-town atmosphere. But just as in the suburbs, unplanned growth and rapid development in gateway communities can create the same social and scenic ills from which many Americans are now fleeing. Worse, rising real estate values and higher property taxes brought on by an increased demand for housing can force lifelong residents from the communities they call home. Skyrocketing property values can quickly translate into housing shortages for longtime residents.
In Bozeman, Montana, for example, a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, the demand for housing and real estate has dramatically affected property values. In 1981, the average cost of a suburban acre near Bozeman was $600; in 1994, that same acre brought as much as $10,000.
In Tremont, Maine, surging demand for land and housing has displaced families who have lived for generations on Mount Desert Island, the gateway to Acadia National Park. "Places that were going for $10,000 ten years ago are going for $80,000 to $90,000 today," says George Lawson, a retired fisherman. "There's no way that young people can stay in the town." The Maine State Housing Authority estimates that the number of Maine families able to afford an average home in the state fell from 81 percent in 1970 to 35 percent in 1990.
Residents of tourism-dependent resort communities are perhaps the hardest hit by rapid growth. In Vail, Colorado, three of every four dwellings are second homes occupied only a few months or weeks a year. Only 9 of Vail's 48 police and firefighters can afford to live in town.
The wave of migration to gateway communities also portends major changes for natural ecosystems and historically significant landscapes and towns. According to a recent report on resource problems facing the National Wildlife Refuge System, more than half the country's refuges, and the wildlife that depend on them, face threats to their health.
In Florida, widespread development of private lands bordering the National Key Deer Refuge has pushed the refuge's namesake, the endangered dwarf Key deer, to the brink of extinction. The Key deer is threatened not only by habitat loss but also by homeowners who feed the deer, drawing the animals to roadsides and residential areas, where every year vehicles kill as much as one-fifth of the Key deer population.
In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, residential subdivisions adjacent to the National Elk Refuge have diminished the wintering grounds of a herd of nearly 10,000 elk. "Sixty head of elk used to winter right where that house is," says refuge manager Mike Hedrick, pointing to a new housing tract on his border. The elk that winter on the refuge are the same animals that summer in the high country of nearby Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, a prime attraction for the more than three million visitors a year.
A 1994 survey of national park superintendents revealed similar problems—85 percent of America's national parks are experiencing threats from outside their boundaries. Civil War battlefields are particularly vulnerable. A blue-ribbon congressional panel commissioned in 1991 to survey the condition of Civil War battle sites found that one-fifth of the nation's 400 most significant battlefields have been lost to development. Of the remaining battlefields, more than half are threatened. As the commission warned: "The nation's Civil War heritage ... is disappearing under buildings, parking lots, and highways."
Even large parks are threatened. In 1994, a contagious strain of viral pneumonia killed more than two-thirds of a 100-animal herd of bighorn sheep that inhabits the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, development of private land adjacent to the park contributed to the spread of the disease by reducing available range and concentrating animals in remaining winter habitat. Stress caused by more frequent interactions with humans and pets also makes bighorns more susceptible to disease. "This park doesn't contain a complete ecosystem," says Rocky Mountain superintendent Homer Rouse. "We're inextricably linked with the lands on our borders."
The Role of Gateway Communities
Gateway communities are important not simply because they provide places for Americans to eat or sleep during their visit to natural or historic areas. They also are portals to our most cherished landscapes: Here is where it is imperative that we integrate human needs with those of our natural environment or cultural history.
Gateway communities also offer important lessons for other rural communities grappling with growth and change. Ben Read, a writer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, points out that these communities are perhaps the first to contend with absolute limits to growth in an area. While suburbs can simply shift growth to neighboring cities or counties, gateway communities don't have that option: Much of the land on their outskirts is publicly owned and thus off-limits to development. In an evermore crowded world, the lessons provided by gateway communities will be increasingly valuable to all.
Over the past few years, we talked with a variety of people in gateway communities across the country, listening to their experiences, concerns, and ideas. We also undertook an extensive survey of the land-use patterns and economic forces shaping gateway communities. Here's what we found:
1. Many gateway communities are overwhelmed by rapid growth that fails to meet local needs and aspirations.
2. The vast majority of residents in gateway communities, both longtime residents and newcomers, feel a strong attachment to the landscape and character of their town. They want a healthy local economy, but not at the expense of their natural surroundings or community character.
3. Many residents of gateway communities lack information about the land-use and economic-development options available to them. While reams of data and case studies have been produced for planners and landscape architects, there is an acute shortage of such information available to the laypeople making the day-to-day decisions about the future of their communities.
4. Perhaps most important, a number of gateway communities have already implemented successful initiatives that deal with growth in a manner that protects the community's identity while stimulating a healthy economy and safeguarding natural and historic areas. Throughout the country, dozens of communities have proved that economic prosperity doesn't have to rob them of character, degrade their natural surroundings, or transform them into tourist traps.
This book outlines the lessons and tools behind the many success stories we discovered. It is not a cry to stop all growth; nor is it a suggestion for gateway communities to accommodate any growth that presents itself. Rather, it's a call for each community to plan ahead so that growth meets local wishes, contributes to a sustainable economy, enhances a community's quality of life, and complements the neighboring park, wildlife refuge, or other public land.
As we move further into a new economic era characterized by global markets and instantaneous business communication, quality of life will become an increasingly important—maybe the most important—factor in attracting new employers and a skilled workforce. Today, businesses both large and small can operate virtually anywhere. Communities that take steps to protect their quality of life clearly enhance their economic potential as well.
In fact, if there is one theme underlying this book, it's that preserving what's special about America's communities and landscapes doesn't have to jeopardize local economic well-being. Study after study shows that communities that preserve their character and natural values consistently outperform the economies of those that don't.
For gateway communities, and indeed for every small town and city, the challenge is to retain a high quality of life in the face of often intense growth pressures—in short, to prevent a repeat of what happened in many of America's now undesirable and faceless suburbs. This book offers practical and proven lessons on how gateway communities can shape their futures. It describes economic development strategies, land-use planning processes, and conservation tools that gateway communities from all over the country have found effective. Each strategy or process is explained with examples from these communities. For readers who want more details, please consult the notes at the end of each chapter or refer to the suggestions for further reading at the back of the book.
Change is inevitable, but it does not have to come at the expense of what citizens and communities value. We can either be victims of change or we can plan for it, shape it, and emerge stronger from it. The choice is ours.CHAPTER 2
The Economic Value of Quality of Life
America's brightest people are attracted by America's most beautiful places.
—Colorado Governor Roy Romer
More and more gateway communities are finding that adjoining parks, wildlife refuges, or wilderness areas can be powerful economic assets. Tourism is an obvious way to capitalize on nearby public lands. But parks, refuges, and wilderness areas also are valuable for the contribution they make to local quality of life.
Quality of life is a catchall term used to describe the noneconomic amenities a community has to offer, including clean air and water, safe streets, open space, cultural events, recreational opportunities, uncongested roads, good schools, and scenic views. Although the definition of quality of life may vary from person to person, people of every ethnic and economic background place a high value on it. Surveys indicate that quality of life weighs heavily in decisions people make about where they want to live and work. Indeed, throughout the country Americans are fleeing blighted suburbs and cities in search of cleaner, greener, smaller, safer, and more neighborly communities. Gateway communities are leading destinations.
Increasingly, Americans are saying that the place they live is as important as what they do for a living—so much so that they're willing to relocate to a "better" community even at the risk of diminished job opportunity or a lower income. Technological advances like the fax machine, computer modem, overnight delivery services, and electronic mail have accelerated this trend.
"People aren't just moving for jobs and money anymore," says Randy Shroll, an Idaho Department of Commerce official who recruits companies to relocate to the state. "They're moving because they want a decent place to live."
And companies are following them. A growing body of evidence suggests that quality of life is a dominant factor in attracting businesses. According to David Birch in his book Job Creation in America: How the Smallest Companies Put the Most People to Work, as much as 90 percent of the jobs in the American economy are being created by what he calls "high-innovation firms"—small firms that employ fewer than 20 employees. Birch maintains that these firms, which rely primarily on a skilled, intelligent work force, will locate in environments that "bright, creative people find attractive."
Even isolated communities with relatively high costs of living can attract these firms, as long as their quality of life is good enough to lure an educated workforce. "People used to move to find the jobs," says Randy Shroll, "but nowadays companies are moving to find the people."
Even larger corporations are following the lead of Birch's high-innovation firms. Springfield, Oregon, a community in the beautiful Willamette River Valley, recently attracted a new Sony Corporation compact disc factory that will provide 1,500 well- paying jobs. "It wasn't blind, dumb luck that helped us land Sony," says Mayor Bill Morrisette. "What we have here is quality of life. And as long as we don't screw that up, we'll always be able to attract people and businesses."
Similarly, in Jackson, Wyoming, gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, the business with the largest payroll isn't a hotel or ski resort. It's the law firm of Spence, Moriarity and Schuster that has a national practice that allows it to be situated anywhere in the country. That the firm remains in Jackson—with a small airport and few local clients—is testimony to the quality of life the town offers.
Businesses in the country's highest growth industries—health care, computer software, electronics manufacturing, and professional services—are especially attracted to communities with a high quality of life. These firms rely heavily on employee satisfaction in guiding decisions about where to locate.
Excerpted from Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities by Jim Howe, Ed McMahon, Luther Propst. Copyright © 1997 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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