Growing Cities of the West and South

Urban areas growing at 2 percent per year will double their populations in just 36 years. At this rate, development takes place so rapidly that people can almost see it from day to day. Highways get more crowded, open space fills up, and sleepy towns around the urban fringes quickly become urban centers as new homes, offices, and shopping malls sprawl across the countryside.

Not counting immigration, the population of the U.S. is barely growing, and probably won't double for at least 150 years. But this near-zero population growth disguises major shifts in the populations of U.S. regions. In great numbers, Americans are fleeing the climatically inhospitable and densely populated Northeast and Midwest for the sunny South and the thinly populated West. US map showing growth rates by state

Annual population growth rates between 1990 and 1995. Source: Census Bureau.

Rapid growth means that many southern and western communities are experiencing serious "growing pains." In a few states, including Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming, the rural areas in these states are growing faster than cities. This suggests that growth is actually two different types of problems: Both kinds of growth lead to strife between existing residents and newcomers. This is especially true in the West, where spectacular scenery and a clean environment have always been associated, in local residents' minds, with small numbers of people. People who find themselves rubbing shoulders with others in supposedly wide-open spaces soon demand government regulation of growth.

Although the stresses are the same, the problems and solutions differ. No one thinks that Livingston, Montana or Las Cruces, New Mexico need a light-rail system. Nor is anyone proposing to turn Denver or Seattle into a buffalo commons.

This issue of Different Drummer focuses on urban growth problems. Our research paper, Transitions, looked at rural growth; we hope to take up that issue in more detail soon.

We use Portland as a model both because that is where we live and because so many other people point to Portland's growth management as a model for other fast-growing regions. Oregon and Portland share a reputation for pioneering solutions to both rural and urban growth problems:

Civic leaders in fast-growing cities throughout the nation eye these programs with envy. Dallas, Denver, Austin, and Seattle are building or contemplating rail transit lines. Along with rail will come some of the growth-management techniques used in Portland, for planners agree that rail transit's success requires a complete redesign of our cities. Regional planning agencies in more than 300 U.S. cities wish they had the authority that Portland has granted to Metro.

Urban-growth boundaries, light rail, and regional planning agencies are textbook solutions to growth. But a hard look at Portland's programs suggests that the textbook is wrong. If you live in a fast-growing urban area, this issue of Different Drummer could open your eyes to problems you didn't even know existed.

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