Monday, June 17, 2013

A Pot Boils Over, Exposing a False Dichotomy about Growth

Sometimes the contents of a pot can simmer for hours, only to turn into a roiling boil with a single addition.  Perhaps it’s a spoon to stir the contents or perhaps it’s a final ingredient.  I had a simmering pot burst into a boil a few minutes ago.

The transitional ingredient was a single sentence buried deep in a news article.

The Petaluma City Council will soon make appointments to the Planning Commission.  Five years ago, one political faction used a slight majority on the City Council to appoint a Planning Commission that largely represented their perspective.  Now, the situation has been reversed.  The other faction has the majority and there are four Planning Commission vacancies to be filled.

The looming question is the extent to which the current majority will use their advantage to drive the make-up of the Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission appointments may influence the future of the city.  Along with many others, I’m watching with great interest.  And the press has picked up the story with enthusiasm.

Which led to the Press-Democrat story that I read a short while ago.  After summarizing the issues around the pending appointments, the writer referred to the Planning Commissioners who were previously appointed and will continue to serve.  Neither the names of the Commissioners nor the identity of writer are important, so are not repeated here.  But this is the sentence that triggered the boil, “X is considered progressive, while Y and Z (are) more welcoming of development.”

Do you see the issue?  There is an implicit assumption that “progressive” is the antithesis of “welcoming development”.  It’s a dichotomy that others describe as “anti-development” versus “pro-development”.

Some readers are shrugging their shoulders, thinking “So what?  Most communities have that divide.”  But the divide doesn’t exist, except in foggy, ill-conceived stereotypes.  And the false knowledge about the dichotomy interferes with a more helpful understanding of the issues behind development decisions, which in turn distorts how we plan our cities.

Admittedly, there are some at both ends of a local politic spectrum who are true anti-development.  The basis of their beliefs is either “The town should remain as it was when I was young” or “All developers are evil and should be shunned.”   But those tend to be fringe opinions.  People who hold those opinions are rarely elected or appointed to decision-making positions.

Instead, most people in key municipal roles believe that development is often appropriate, especially when increasing population or the replacement of aging buildings demands development.  In more than twenty years of being involved in local land-use issues, I can’t think of a single Councilmember or Planning Commissioner who opposed all development.

The actual dichotomy is in the favored kind of development.  People who are characterized as “pro-development” are generally in favor of a broad range of development concepts.  As a general rule, if a developer proposes it and it’s not obnoxious, they’ll support it.

Conversely, the people who are characterized as “anti-growth” have preferences that lean toward urbanism.  They’re not necessarily opposed to development that might be called drivable suburban, but they’re wary of it.

To the extent that folks correctly understand the dichotomy, they often use “smart -growth” to define decision-makers who favor urbanism.  I’ve never liked that term, finding it demeaning to those who don’t hold the position.  My preference, which I’ll use here, is “pro-urbanism”.

On the other side of the divide, the term “pro-development” no longer applies once we understand that both sides can support development.  I’m going to use “pro-sprawl” to define the other side.  It’s not fair because that side generally supports all types of development.  But given the institutional biases against urbanism, sprawl is often the result of a build anything philosophy.  So “pro-sprawl” is factually correct, even it fails to accurately capture the mindset.

Which do I prefer?  Given the increasing desire of many demographic sectors to live in walkable settings, the trend of younger people to live transit-oriented, in place of car-oriented, lives, the financial sustainability issues around sprawl, and the looming environmental consequences of an auto-based culture, the choice to be pro-urbanism seems obvious to me.  I think it’s the preferred route to economic vitality.

Now, one last mind-bender before I close.  “Pro-development” is sometimes called “pro-growth”, with “anti-development” called “anti-growth”.  But what happens when a city provides the type of homes that people increasingly prefer?  It grows, of course.  By every indication, urbanism is the route to growth.

Through ill-considered terminology, we managed to invert the world.  What was previously called “pro-development” or “pro-growth” may actually retard growth.  And what previously called “anti-development” may actually encourage growth.  It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

Does that mean that I, as a self-proclaimed pro-urbanist, am also pro-growth?  Yes, sort of.  I like the size of Petaluma.  Over the past 26 years, I’ve lived in four communities, all with populations between 50,000 and 75,000.  Petaluma is in my sweet spot.
But it’s possible that the only path for Petaluma to remain in that population range is the sprawl path.  That’s because there’s a problem with sprawl.  Its financial sustainability is dubious.  A look at Petaluma over the past 15 years shows a hint of the concern.  It’s possible that a pro-sprawl choice will lead to a community that tops out at 70,000 people with severe traffic congestion, infrastructure, and municipal finance issues.

Conversely, a pro-urbanism path may grow to 90,000 people with a good city balance sheet and a strong community.  If those are my choices, sign me up for “pro-urbanism” and “pro-growth”, no matter how oxymoronic some may find it.

Now you know what set my pot to boiling.  And I’m glad that it did.  Venting can be good for the soul.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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