Facing our urban destiny
November 13, 2005
When I read recently about a heroin ring in Carbondale, it seemed oddly out of context with the rural atmosphere of the Roaring Fork Valley. So did a campground shooting on the Flattops, a brutal assault at Dinkel Lake, an attempted murder on Independence Pass, a road-rage pummeling at the Aspen roundabout, and an outbreak of fistfights on the Aspen mall. This isn’t just an ordinary spate of violent crimes, but evidence of a rising level of desperation and hysteria during the process of rapid urbanization. Life pressures are so rapidly accelerating that we’re seeing the erosion of social cohesion and basic humanitarian values.John Colson’s front-page article in The Aspen Times last week pointed out just how quickly the valley is being urbanized. With almost 7,000 new homes already approved between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, the Roaring Fork Valley is on the verge of a life-changing escalation of urbanizing influences. That future promises an enormous boon to the real estate and development sectors, where the cornucopia of profits seems inexhaustible, but to anyone who cherishes small-scale communities, it’s a pending disaster that feels like we’re moving to Arvada … or like Arvada is moving to us. The vast commercial wasteland known as the Meadows in Glenwood Springs illustrates just how blandly homogenous, conventionally suburban, blatantly commercial, synthetic, fake and soulless is the new urban trend. Given that trend and the open embrace it garners from those who worship at the altar of cheap, exploitative goods and services, it seems ill-advised to become personally attached to quiet, rural communities, the solace of open spaces and security from the stresses of urban intensity. It makes you wonder if local communities really have the wherewithal to control their destinies. I used to think so, but that was 25 years ago, when I lived in Crested Butte, and the town defied the AMAX mining company before it literally consumed the community we loved. AMAX planned to mine 300 million tons of molybdenum ore by gutting a nearby mountain. Crested Butte successfully fought the mine in an all-out community effort, but as many Butteicians know, it was easier fighting a single adversary like AMAX than it is thwarting the ubiquitous commercial onslaught that’s consuming their pastoral community today. Instead of a monolithic external foe, the threat to rural values comes from a localized network of builders, realtors, developers, etc., who derive their livings – and often great personal fortunes -promoting growth. The will of the community to curtail the aggrandizement of friends and neighbors withers under the coercive influence of peer pressure and free market entitlements. The result is incremental urbanization, where one day we wake up to an almost unrecognizable landscape and wonder what happened. One day we’re living in the Elysian Fields, and the next we’re keeping a grim tally of violent crimes and societal breakdowns.Tempering growth in this valley is like curtailing obesity at an ice cream social. We’re eager to test the valley’s carrying capacity until something breaks down. Schools, police, transportation, social services, air and water quality … all feel the strain of fast growth. The vaunted increase in tax base never catches up, so everybody pays for the gross overcompensation of development profiteers. As Glenwood Springs morphs into a facsimile of Grand Junction, as Highway 82 gridlocks from stoplight to stoplight, as schools become overcrowded, and social services are overwhelmed and heroin rings operate in Carbondale, some may wonder if urbanizing the valley was such a smart idea. Old-timers are prone to looking back to “the good old days,” and years from now those of us who remember them may wonder why we failed to act in the spirit of self-preservation and slow it down – or phase it better or simply say “No.” The will and discipline of local governments and caring citizens must form a solid bulwark between our communities and the urban frenzy most of us thought we were avoiding by living here.Of what value will great personal fortunes be when our root values are bought, sold and subdivided? The opportunity to think about those losses is now, not 10 years from now while witnessing a road-rage shooting at an intersection.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.