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Managing Growth in America's Communities
By Douglas R. Porter
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2008 Douglas R. Porter
All rights reserved.
Introduction to Managing Community Development
Local governments endeavor to guide community growth and change through a host of plans, policies, programs, and regulations. Most are embodied in traditional planning documents, such as comprehensive or master plans, zoning ordinances, and subdivision regulations. However, beginning in the 1960s, public officials sought greater influence over the location, rate, and quality of development. They crafted and applied new types of planning and regulatory controls under the heading of "growth management." The techniques that evolved from these efforts, such as growth boundaries and adequate public facilities requirements, now offer public decision makers almost day-to-day opportunities to shape the direction and character of community expansion. What's more, such increasingly popular precepts as sustainable development, smart growth, new urbanism, and green development (terms defined and described later) are expanding the lexicon of growth management and increasingly influencing the form and function of community development.
The efforts of Fort Collins, Colorado, to manage community growth over a half century illustrate the roots and branches of public involvement in the development process. In the mid-1950s, the citizens of Fort Collins recognized that the city's growth was raising issues that needed attention. Founded in 1864 as a military outpost, Fort Collins developed into a small college town and a trade and shopping center for the surrounding area. Until the 1950s, the town boasted fewer than fifteen thousand residents, but then the college began expanding and new industries arrived; suddenly growth was everywhere. During the 1960s, the number of residents rose by 7 percent a year, and in the 1970s, by 5 percent.
As growth occurred, the town frantically annexed land to accommodate development, virtually doubling the incorporated area each decade. Soon, growth brought traffic-clogged roads, overcrowded schools, the need for expanded sewer and water systems, and a scarcity of park spaces. The rudimentary zoning ordinance seemed inadequate to deal with these problems. Although a city-appointed task force recommended a program of short-term public investments, the larger issue of managing future growth remained unresolved. A "Plan for Progress" formulated in 1967 started the planning ball rolling, but to little effect on the ground. A follow-on planning effort produced a statement of goals and objectives but no consensus on where and what development should take place. Another task force, extensive public hearings, and a failed growth-limiting ballot initiative finally led to the city council's adoption in 1979 of a four-part comprehensive plan: a land use policies plan, an innovative land use guidance system that added flexible development standards to existing zoning, a city-county agreement defining an urban growth area, and a cost-of-development study.
Fort Collins's population growth continued to rise, from 43,000 in 1970 to 118,000 in 2000. The effects on spatial needs drove the city to adopt a new plan, called "City Plan," in 1997, shortly followed by a new zoning ordinance that wrapped many of the "flexible" development standards into zoning requirements. By 2002, however, when the plan was due for updating, significant opposition to rapid growth resulted in a plan that emphasized redevelopment and infill of the existing urbanized area instead of significantly expanding the established growth area. Subsequently, the city staff has proposed revisions to city codes and administrative policies to assist redevelopment and infill activities.
Fort Collins's experience over a half century of rapid growth mirrors the principal features of growth management programs in many communities:
Sudden, unplanned development caused major problems in community livability, provoking citizens' concerns for improving public management of development.
Agreement on measures for addressing growth problems evolved over many years as community leadership coalesced and various solutions were tested.
City officials learned that a single solution—meeting infrastructure needs—fell short of satisfying wider community concerns.
Continual involvement of many organizations, interests, and community leaders built strong support for public guidance of the development process.
The city's program today represents an amalgam of conventional and innovative planning and growth management components tailored to the city's particular character and needs.
In short, the citizens of Fort Collins discovered that managing growth is a time-consuming, politically messy, and constantly evolving process. At times exhilarating, the experience and guidance of urban growth also can be deeply frustrating. Easy solutions are elusive, and lingering opposition by property owners and the development industry to strengthening public guidance of growth can impede positive measures. In addition, the process usually requires multiple investments of time, energy, innovation, and follow-through actions. But citizens, public officials, and city planners in many communities are acquiring a long-term, comprehensive view of the challenges of community growth and change. They understand the need to anticipate problems before they overwhelm community resources; to recognize the interrelationships among urban design, environmental, transportation, social and economic, and other components of growth; and to incorporate a broad sense of shared values and concerns in public policies affecting community development.
These approaches all fall under the heading of growth management, an inclusive approach to defining community strategies for future development and acting on them.
Anticipating Community Growth and Change
America's population continues to grow. The U.S. Census Bureau counted 281 million residents in the United States in 2000 and estimates that that number increased to about 301 million by 2007. By 2020, the Census Bureau projects a U.S. population of 336 million, and by 2050, a population of 420 million—almost half again the 2000 population. Although fertility rates are not anticipated to rebound to earlier levels, the average life expectancy of residents probably will increase and the rate of immigration will continue to add substantially to the nation's population. The Census Bureau predicts that, by 2050, about half of all residents will represent what are now regarded as minority groups.
Almost 90 percent of new residents will remain in or move to metropolitan areas. About four out of five Americans live in metropolitan areas today, and the Census Bureau expects that the expansion of the urban and suburban population will continue well into the twenty-first century. And, since 1950, more than 90 percent of the growth in metropolitan areas has occurred in suburban places; many people are born, mature, work, and die all in the suburban environment. Indeed, Joel Kotkin claims that "most of the fastest growth 'cities' of the late twentieth century—Los Angeles, Atlanta, Orlando, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas and Charlotte—are primarily collections of suburbs." Suburbs in many metropolitan areas are being transformed into major regional centers, the focus of metropolitan growth.
At the same time, some older central cities are attracting new residents drawn by appealing historic neighborhoods and access to entertainment and other center-city advantages. In fact, most large central cities have added population since 2000, although some, such as Boston and San Francisco, have been affected by regional economic shifts that have reduced center-city populations. Even city downtowns, following twenty years of declining populations, have rebounded; a study of forty-four city downtowns showed that downtown populations grew by 10 percent during the 1990s and that the number of downtown households increased by 13 percent during that decade.
Robert Lang and Arthur Nelson, of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, point out that the expansion of metropolitan areas is creating clusters of "megapolitan" regions that currently account for two-thirds of the U.S. population. They identify ten such regions—six east of the Mississippi River and four west of it—that are growing faster than the nation's population as a whole. The largest agglomeration is the Northeast Corridor, home to 50 million people, stretching from New England down the Atlantic coast to northern Virginia.
Expanding suburbs and revitalized inner cities foster alterations in the built and social environment—some welcome, some not (for example, the displacement of existing residents in gentrifying city neighborhoods or the maturation of small-town centers into busy employment hubs). However, even metropolitan areas losing population experience change. As people move from inner-city areas and older suburbs to newly forming suburbs, they may better their quality of life while the continuing decline of their former neighborhoods creates other social and economic issues that need attention.
Many members of the baby boom generation are retiring to once-rural areas, many to find inexpensive housing; telecommuters, too, are moving farther away from cities. However, a substantial proportion of new homes in rural and remote areas constitute second homes of people otherwise still resident in urbanized areas.
Community growth and change challenge both citizens and governments to prepare for new circumstances. Fort Collins's history reveals a common process of urban formation, alteration, and adaptation to changing conditions. For close to a century, its small-town ways made few demands on public facilities. Its citizens saw no need to guide growth because, typically, small developments were easily assimilated into the social and economic fabric and the town's infrastructure systems. However, rapid growth generated disorienting alterations in the townscape: virtually overnight, it turned open farmland into subdivisions full of new houses and transformed rural crossroads into busy intersections lined with shopping centers.
In such circumstances, communities discover that highly visible new development is commonly accompanied by shifts in the social and economic aspects of daily life. New home owners arrive with expectations for services; some also have different ideas about lifestyles. Schools face new pressures on space and curricula. Often, growth also threatens the very environmental qualities that attract new residents. Low-density subdivisions and retail strips replace farms, meadows, and woodlands. Poorly designed development damages stream valleys and wetlands, disturbs wildlife habitats, and destroys historic and cultural features that link the community to its heritage.
Faced with new demands for public facilities and services, local public officials scramble to secure funding and establish administrations of ever-larger infrastructure systems. Often, they are overwhelmed and unprepared to envision new governmental responsibilities or take decisive steps to meet them. Slow to recognize emerging needs, they may neglect to insist on appropriate standards of development and instead resort to stopgap solutions and crisis-reactive actions. In so doing, local officials frequently miss opportunities for maintaining the special character of the community and for guaranteeing the long-term value of its ongoing development.
Community growth and change can be beneficial. New development can be a positive force for improving the lives of many residents. More and better employment opportunities may open up as new businesses and industries move to the area. Goods and services may become more conveniently available, and amenities in the form of special recreational sites, museums, and performance venues may increase. Residential development may provide wider choices of housing styles and prices to fit the preferences of a more varied population. New development may produce a sounder long-term fiscal base for the community.
But it takes foresight and incisive management of the resources at hand to answer the challenges of community expansion and change.
Public Guidance of Community Development
The United States traditionally has relied to an extraordinary extent on spontaneous economic forces (commonly termed the free market system or free enterprise) to build the places in which we live and work. The right of private individuals to own and determine how they will use real estate has been a cherished and constitutionally protected tradition. Unlike in ancient times when powerful governments founded cities and towns (especially in recently subjugated colonies), private developers and speculators have laid out and built the urban places where people lived. In Colonial America, great landowners such as William Penn and James Oglethorpe borrowed many of the ancient ideas of town building—a gridiron street pattern, systems of open spaces, highly visible civic buildings—in designing new towns. Since then, most communities in the United States have been developed as private ventures. The American Revolution helped the process by abolishing many of the feudal public claims on land ownership; soon after, the Ordinance of 1785 established the rectangular survey system that allowed speculators to identify and trade in land they never saw.
But the public sector has always been a strong force in establishing the rules of the development game and participating in the development process. Governments provide the legal framework for land ownership and contractual understandings. They support development by planning and securing funding for necessary infrastructure and major capital facilities. At times, governments participate in joint ventures to promote development that promises to meet economic and other public objectives.
Governments also prescribe standards for development and regulate the character and location of development. The City Beautiful movement initiated by the Columbian Exposition of 1893 inspired cities to build imposing civic edifices and parks and to create wide boulevards—adding distinctive identities to urban places but also increasing the value of adjoining private lands. The first two decades of the 1900s, however, saw the first stirrings of municipal interest and involvement in overseeing private development activities. Stimulated by concepts of the City Beautiful movement and motivated by concerns over teeming slums in the major cities, civic reformers called for establishing housing and building standards and for devoting more attention to the quality of civic spaces such as roads and parks. Citizens began to understand the community-wide benefits of well-designed neighborhoods and cities. Committees of leading citizens commissioned well-known civic designers to provide plans for the future development of their up-and-coming cities. In 1916, New York City adopted the first comprehensive zoning law to regulate land use as well as building characteristics. Municipal zoning quickly spread across the nation, opening the door to increasing public regulation of development.
In recent decades, many local governments have increased their control over private development activities. Some, in response to voters' wishes to slow or even stop growth, have imposed limits on the amount or spread of development. Environmentalists and other interest groups have pressed for more rigorous standards to protect natural features and historic areas. Neighborhood residents have obtained special zoning protection against new developments in their vicinity. In addition, many local governments, constrained by limitations on powers of taxation and changing attitudes toward development, have shifted a significant proportion of the burden of financing development-related infrastructure to the private sector.
Today, local governments in the United States possess the most direct public powers to regulate development. Although some of the 19,000 municipalities and 3,100 counties throughout the nation are too small or lack the authority to enact development regulations, many local jurisdictions actively guide development through the adoption of official policies and regulations. Certainly, most cities with populations higher than twenty-five thousand persons as well as many suburban jurisdictions and towns with smaller populations are concerned with ensuring the quality of development. In addition, the townships in some states and some counties in other states also have power to regulate development, although some states deliberately limit county governmental powers to certain rurally oriented duties, such as highway maintenance and social services. Some states have also enabled combinations of cities and counties to jointly regulate development.
Thus thousands of local governments are engaged in governing the development process. In many metropolitan areas, dozens and even hundreds of municipalities and counties regulate development. In addition, regional agencies provide forums, and sometimes plans, to coordinate the development decisions of local governments, although few regional organizations have much influence on those decisions.
Excerpted from Managing Growth in America's Communities by Douglas R. Porter. Copyright © 2008 Douglas R. Porter. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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