How Big Is Too Big?

The planning of a city is a process that allows for corrections; it is supremely arrogant to believe that planning can be done only after every possible variable has been controlled.

— Jaime Lerner, former mayor Curitiba, Brazil; architect; urbanist


I’ve done this before — using a city where I resided in to make a larger abstract, holistic, microcosmic point or set of propositions. See this DV piece. That “think locally and act globally” proposition, or “act locally and think globally” philosophy is as important to sanity and sustainability and ecosystems repair as is “it takes a village to raise a child” is to individual communities.  Both go hand-in-hand, and as a journalist-writer, I have to do all of that constantly to understand “systems”  that are impounding progress and conspiring to kill true solutions to cities’ and communities’ ills. Unfortunately, we do not have enough of “that” sort of reporting or opining going on. But the color patterns of Detroit and the threads of San Francisco and the stitches to Los Angeles, all of that great  fabric-making of any city in the US, or Canada for that matter, it’s pretty much predicated on some solid principles and collective truisms.

As a planning student and planning writer, I understand the entire mess of gridlock, eco-pornography, green-washing, letting the US Chamber of Commerce business as bulldozer attitude prevail in city hall and county commissioners court. We are stuck going at the brick wall either at 70 mph or at 50 mph. Rubber bands for  safety belts, a Styrofoam helmet  for the cranium, and an aluminum fuel tank for front  bumper.

Exponential growth, uncontrolled growth, sprawl, highways and by-ways, the entire mess that is the cancer of a Phoenix (I am old enough to have traveled to Phoenix from my home in Tucson as a punk kid and actually driven on dirt roads and watched coyotes and endless sunsets and carpeting of cacti where Chandler-Tempe-Gilbert-Mesa-Phoenix now sits proudly in a sea of cement, tarmac, internal combustion vehicular madness with the ever-churning compressors of an air conditioned insanity) is the cancer eating all American cities that plan for roads, parking lots, endless strip-malls, useless buildings of shame, and exurbs and suburbs. We can do better, and move beyond the tired old GDP, All Growth Is Good Growth delusion!

We have a massive car-truck-plane culture, one tied to consumerism on steroids, one where depleted uranium looks like a safe thing once you start putting the pieces of the Peak Oil-Peak Everything Collapse puzzle together. We are cooked, and we are basically incapable of breaking out of the gridlock and straight-jacket that is Capitalism.

Each municipality (oh, around 30,000 big and small ones in the USA, incorporated ones, that is) is straddled with some pretty good folks (in low numbers) fighting some really rotten politicians-business owners-elites (in high numbers) trying to make the Big C in community — Collective Action — a reality up against the building and paving and land stealing-land speculating groups that in many cases are in the dozens but control entire municipalities because they control the “money” and the elected officials.

I’ve found that great divide or disconnect from what we learn and practice in graduate planning courses with the reality of the street, and the building and development communities. They are in the business of big, quick bucks, and they have no love of strategic, slow, precautionary planning. They have no stomach for cutting back on auto-nation thinking and designing. They have no desire to assist a community with building the most important safety nets in that Community Fabric — fair housing, fair transportation choices, fair economic development, fair educational opportunities and a place that is about public space and public participation.

So, as I have said again, you might end up at this planner’s clearing house for a look at the topics hitting young and old planners alike — Planetizen.  Or, so many more:

Congress for New Urbanism.    Project for Public Spaces.    Living Building Challenge.  Tactical Urbanism. 

For now, though, a reprint of a piece of mine out now, still on the newsstands in the Spokane region known as the Inland Pacific Northwest. You can find it on line before a next piece of mine is published on design principles and what those have to do with cities livability.  Enjoy:

Managing Growth in a Diverse Collective Mindset — codes, alphabet soup, takers and givers

By Paul K. Haeder

Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living Magazine

The most fundamental way to treat the land – whether it is an open field, an existing village, or a   street in town – is to respect what is there, protect it, continue it, and make it better. Heal it.  Make it more whole. The great towns and villages have always been built this way, and it is this   process which gave them beauty.

 — from architect, mathematician, systems theorist  Christopher Alexander’s “Living Neighborhoods”

Big, Beautiful, Bountiful?

The wholeness and human scale many architects, urban morphologists, and planning practitioners ascribe to have all sorts of origins and avocations. Spokane is not without its diverse, deep and committed folk who see a Spokane ready to engage in serious talk about bio-regional economic development, strong neighborhoods, building a place that puts value into the “near nature, near perfect” ethos, and perfecting a community that claims support for all classes of people.

The idea is to bring the stakeholders – citizens – together to have a say in each neighborhood’s destiny. That’s called participatory democracy, at the level of neighborhood planning. How we get to this point is one of great contention and debate:

“We know what a great neighborhood is, what it looks like, and if we want to live in it. A great neighborhood is beautiful. Houses are cared for, there are trees, flowers, good roads, sidewalks on busy streets. Traffic moves slowly along well maintained streets. Children play in yards, people walk dogs along streets and sidewalks. There is a park nearby. There are fun places to walk to. We feel safe,” says Amber Joplin, a Washington State University  PhD who specializes in aging in place and livable communities.

Unfortunately, great neighborhoods in the some 30,000 incorporated cities and towns in this country are in decline, under stress, and getting gobbled up by roads and the morass of suburban sprawl.

Everyone wants to be the biggest, baddest, best. Chicago is going for the greenest city in America award (in the mayor’s mind as 57 schools just got shut down against citizens’ wishes). San Francisco claims it’s the most scaled big city to human needs,  and most bike-friendly (expensive as all heck and hit with one of the biggest class divides in America). Atlanta is touting its up and coming status (and it’s in the top five fattest cities, with 24/7 air conditioning and SUV worship beyond compare). Portland wants to stay weird and cutting edge (but like Seattle, the city boundary is closed in, and the suburbs are busting at the seams with high tech and big med and the hit TV series Portlandia bringing in more and more people).

A city like Spokane growing out of its britches isn’t a pleasant thought. Add to that more baby boomers ending their driving days and young kids who can’t. WSU’s Bob Scarfo sees most of the growth mentality in Spokane and Washington State as shortsighted:

“The layperson knows growth in terms of what they feel, or, worse, believe they will feel in their wallet. Tim Eyman’s success at this approach has found many who voted to save a few bucks a year only to find out they lost hundreds of dollars, or more, in services. So as for growth, the general public isn’t thinking beyond their wallets, let alone 10 or 20 years into the future when they will be 10 or 20 years older and in need of walkable streets, public transit, home services that their municipality can afford.”

The end result as Joplin, Scarfo and others see is aging people, poor families and kids stuck in the suburbs without services.

So how big is too big, for a burgh like Spokane?

We can just move aside the elephants in the room before going on – climate change, water scarcity, economic uncertainty, hollowing out of the middle class,  seamless networks of capital, fewer people wedded to place, fractured, precarious work.

What’s the sack of peanut herding the elephants under the big top?  Change. It’s what life is. Humans, cities, ecologies, everything change. How we adapt or don’t adapt can be a matter of surviving, thriving or extinction. Land use and planning are two key ways to get cities – citizens – thinking about those things and accepting strategic thinking beyond the current or next generation’s needs.

Some think seven generations out is too short-sighted. Most people barely think about their own lives a year put.

No matter how much Spokane and the powers that be believe that there is endless land out there, endless freeway projects in the future, endless cul-de-sac villages to be marketed, the world is rapidly urbanizing  — from 50% today, toward 80% or 90% by 2050.

Growing bigger means more transportation – in the US transportation is a third of “the problem” and in California half; the problem being resiliency and infrastructure costs.

“A lot of people still question: does urbanism change our behavior?” asks Peter Calthorpe, head of a firm that specializes in transit-oriented development.

“Luckily, we’ve been at this long enough that we have a lab, Portland, Oregon. Following the inception of the city’s light rail line and denser development around it, vehicle miles traveled fell 11% from 1996 to 2002, and have continued their downward trajectory. If we cannot prove these benefits, we cannot prove ourselves in the realm of politics,” Calthorpe says. “Good urbanism is going to be isolated and anecdotal; it’s not going to be normative.”

Politics as usual is business as usual. I spoke with Jon Snyder, local publisher of Out There Magazine. I caught him five minutes before the filing deadline for a second term bid as City Councilman. He’s a backer of what some call “smart growth.” His concern is taxes, services and expanding beyond the city’s ability to provide for the public’s health, welfare and safety.

“The Growth Management Act has been very important for the state of Washington. There is that dichotomy, though, between urban and rural counties. Spokane is right in the middle.”

Snyder sees the county government in a “weird cycle” of expanding developing further and further out in Spokane County, necessitating the City to impose de facto tax increases paying for service delivery as more areas are annexed. We have lots of urban thinkers trying to densify within the city boundaries and then those who want to be farther and farther away.

Managed Mayhem or Magic – The Growth Management Act of Washington, 23 years Later

In many ways, planning – urban-suburban land use, transportation, protection of natural/farm acreage, neighborhood design – all of it can be filtered through many lenses. However,  two huge swatches of philosophical cloth could cover them all: we are either takers or givers.

The GMA is a “growth tool” other states have adopted, a few before and many after the Evergreen State’s adoption of the state mandate, which states things in lofty, proactive ways. It’s a thick-thick document, an alphabet soup of codes, terms, policies and measures:

“The legislature finds that uncoordinated and unplanned growth, together with a lack of common goals … pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state. It is in the public interest that citizens, communities, local governments, and the private sector cooperate and coordinate with one another in comprehensive land use planning.”

Almost a quarter century of GMA – Now What?

Kai Huschke, who has been working hard on the Community Bill of Rights and what’s come to be also known as Envision Spokane, views the GMA as a system of appeasement and community degradation:

“For the individuals and groups who have brought forward, now, for the third time, a Community Bill of Rights here in Spokane, it comes in part out of the understanding that we can no longer continue on this path of the endless protection of more and believing in the false notion that infinite growth is inevitable, which, in many ways, the growth management models subscribe to,” Huschke says. “There are fundamental questions not being put forward that ask what kind of community do we really want and who should be making those decisions. The Community Bill of Rights asks those questions.”

One  Spokane-based planner, Bill Grimes, owner of Studio Cascade, weighs in on what “too big” is under GMA proscriptions: “This is not an easy question to answer, with cities of vastly different sizes functioning equally well.  Economic drivers, environmental conditions, infrastructure capacity and community culture combine to shape success, regardless of a city’s size.  The trick is to find ways to balance these four things to keep them in line as cities grow…or shrink.”

One influencer for me as well as for an army of planning students who have gone onto greener, drier, wetter pastures is Bill Kelly, faculty in EWU’s planning program. In fact, Kelly moved from Texas to Spokane 35 years ago because the city (back then, it was a City of One, no CSV) was the ideal size based on one theorist’s work. “Big” for Kelly was “medium-sized”:

“Qualifier: I tend to see the glass half (or more) full. Big?  Christopher Alexander, et al wrote in Pattern Language (1977) the ideal size of a City was about 250,000. Spokane was around that size and it had a minor influence on my selecting Spokane as a place to live and work.”

Even a fellow like Councilman Snyder, ever the pitchman and ameliorator, sees “a lot of good plans sitting on shelves.” He spoke about a wide range of issues, including what many call water refugees, people in the future possibly migrating to Spokane from around the country leaving places where 10-, 20-year and permanent droughts will have ended the American Dream on many levels.

For Snyder, the infamous Kendall Yards, a track of regenerated railroad yard, is an example of smart growth on a small scale: it’s close in, near the city core; it’s dense; it’s supposed to have mixed income opportunities for home ownership; it’s supposed to have an urban village feel.

“It’s a hedge against sprawl. Houses at the same price as something built on Five Mile Prairie,” Snyder says.  But without the commute, and traffic, and with, maybe, an old neighborhood feel.

Smarter, Leaner, Greener

For Kathy Miotke, part of Spokane’s Neighborhood Alliance and chair of her Neighborhood Association, that alphabet soup reigning in traffic-concentrated neighborhood development and box store blight includes those TODs (traffic oriented developments), living within the UGA (urban growth area) and following the SMA and ESA (Shoreline Management and Environmental Protection acts). Smart Growth is about the holistic approach to community stewardship, development and standards.

“Smart growth is building first where services are, as in centers and corridors. AND building completely with complete streets.  In some centers and corridors multi-use buildings, lots of pedestrian access.  It is important for the future and costs twice as much to do a halfway job now and try to retro-fit in the future.”

It’s a “pay it forward” deal against bad future tidings, like pest invasions, irregular precipitation and aquifer recharge, and contracting jobs and energy availability. Miotke emphasizes environmental protection as a key driver: “It seems as though we ‘think’ of minimum protections instead of maximum.”

Good friend and fellow EWU planning student, Gideon Schreiber, recently talked to me from his home in Watertown, Massachusetts (the alleged Boston Marathon bomber was found five blocks from his house). He is that town’s city planner. He’s lived and studied in Alaska, grew up in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, and worked in Seattle and Spokane. Most of his life has been in this neck of the woods, and he loves Spokane and has perspectives about how big is too big.

He sees “the revitalization of Spokane as a destination and place to be” as a highlight of his time in Spokane. It’s an urban formula that does work at the neighborhood area, like the East Perry District, which is one of Bill Kelly’s illustrative neighborhoods in the midst of economic transformation because of some money put down for street and sidewalk fixes.

For Schreiber, Grimes and planners coming out of EWU and other schools, the aliveness of a downtown   “as a place for hanging out after five, going to music shows, getting a bite to eat, and watching the alleys, nooks, and crannies converted into great places to meet up”  is the key to economic development.

Growing the bicycle culture is another highlight the Boston planner cites as Spokane attempting to think outside the internal combustion box. Saving each old building is a battle, though, and as Schreiber points out, “ several blocks were lost to parking lots . . . the Riverfront Park corridor is ripe for redevelopment but parking seems to winning.”

Zero Population (growth) Society

We then have to take this question to a logical polarity, one closely aligned with Envision Spokane’s in terms of fighting unchecked and even “controlled growth.”

It’s the old adage for some camps around how much growth is bad growth, attributed to Narcotics Anonymous and Einstein and Ben Franklin:

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

On that riff, Kia Huschke is clear: “We seem to make our decisions from a place that says the system we have today is permanent, that growth is inevitable, that the economy is what it is all about, and how do we best fit within that system.”

He poses some simple questions, probably never asked by politicians and developers, nor conceptualized by the average bloke or gal:

  • “What do we want?”
  •  “How do we fulfill those wants in a way that creates a community that is equitable, healthy, just, sustainable, and democratic?”

Finally, the last elephant in the room: The no-growth or de-growth alternative. All good and nimble planners should have in their tool chests plenty of alternatives. Gabor Zovanyi is Hungarian, raised in California, and, like Bill Kelly, one of those Baby Boomers near retirement from Eastern Washington University’s  planning program.

For decades, Zovayni has been teaching at Eastern concepts that are considered by many as provocative, or worse, heretical.

His new book definitely is worth reading, and, well, we can predict it isn’t going to be easy reading for members of city council, the County commission or state honchoes. The point of a university perspective, however, is to push the edge. The book, just out by Routledge Press, The No-Growth Imperative: Creating Sustainable Communities under Ecological Limits to Growth, stretches and tears the edges of those developers’ and builders’ profit envelopes.

Here’s what Zovayni tells me about the GMA, 23 years later.

“Yes, a case can be made for the view that current growth-management initiatives are superior to what was previously being done. To the extent that growth management achieves such ends as reining in sprawl, protecting critical areas, conserving resource lands, realizing more efficient provision of infrastructure, reducing automobile dependency, and creating new urbanism communities it is clearly a huge improvement over what has tended to occur in the absence of management programs. However, the movement’s support of unending growth accommodation is both counterproductive and unsustainable.”

Contraction vis-à-vis The No-Growth Imperative  might be a serious topic soon as County commissioners continue to encourage more growth outside the UGA (urban growth area), considering this daunting growth projection:

  • Spokane County is expected to grow from 472,000 to 612,000 people between now and 2031.
Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.