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Guest opinion: A no-growth option for Aspen?

Gabor Zovanyi

At the recent State of the World Conference, held at The Aspen Institute and sponsored by the Sopris Foundation, I addressed a topic that never gets raised at growth management meetings: Strategies for stopping growth in local communities.

I suggested that such a no-growth option was needed, possible and legally defensible. Proponents of growth management convey a different message, suggesting that ongoing growth can be accommodated indefinitely, provided it is “smart growth.” The defenders of “smart growth” suggest effective management practices will allow communities to continue to accommodate growth without compromising their quality of life.

In essence, they argue that it is possible to maintain growth by transforming it into a form of socially and environmentally benign expansion. These advocates of “smart growth” assert that continued growth is inevitable, normal, reasonable, proper, realistic, sensible and legitimate. They also refer to “responsible growth,” suggesting that communities need to take their fair share of ongoing growth to avoid imposing an added burden on neighboring communities. They argue further a case for “balanced growth,” claiming that growth and environmental protection represent equally legitimate objectives, and that a balance can be achieved between these ends without compromising either. And finally, they even suggest the possibility of “sustainable growth.”

All of these claims are challenged by actual experiences with ongoing growth in communities across America. An increasing number of Americans are having firsthand experiences with growth management programs that belie the “smart growth” claim that quality of life can be maintained amid ongoing growth.

These communities see growth producing such ill effects as worsening traffic congestion, a lost sense of community, higher costs in the form of rents and local taxes, lost open space, an increasingly stressed environment, and an eroded quality of life on numerous other fronts, including the loss of family ranches around places like Aspen. With respect to “responsible growth,” they are hard-pressed to see how taking part in practices that destroy their quality of life can represent responsible behavior.

As for the “balanced growth” claim, they instead see environmental losses to ongoing growth. And with respect to the possibility of “sustainable growth,” they know either consciously or subconsciously that growth does not represent sustainable behavior.

Communities across America will inevitably have to confront the uncomfortable reality that “smart growth” is just as unsustainable as “dumb growth.” Growth in demographic, economic, or urban terms is simply incapable of being continued or maintained indefinitely. Hence, by definition, such growth is unsustainable.

The United States grew by 33 million people during the 1990s, or the equivalent of 33 cities of 100,000 every 12 months. In terms of an indicator of economic growth, America reached 200 million registered vehicles in 1998, and with the net increase of 2.78 million in that year would add another 55 million vehicles in a mere 20 years. With respect to urban growth consuming the American landscape, during the 1990s the country lost an area of rural land equivalent to the size of Vermont every couple of years.

Growth in these terms is clearly not sustainable, and no amount of good planning or wishful thinking is going to make it sustainable.

It is time for progressive communities to acknowledge that growth is unsustainable and to confront existing limits to growth. A June 19, 2003, article in the Denver Post noted that Colorado’s state population is projected to surge from its 2000 level of 4.3 million to 7.2 million by 2030. This projected growth would occur against a backdrop of multiyear droughts across much of the West that led to a Jan. 10, 2003, editorial in the Christian Science Monitor questioning the merit of further growth. That editorial suggested that water woes “should force all governments, local to federal, to adopt slow- or no-growth development policies where water shortages are an issue.” Such acknowledged realities as water constraints should prompt local communities to stop growth while they still have some quality of life to protect.

As a professor of urban planning, I told attendees of the State of the World Conference that the comprehensive land-use plans and associated land-use regulations used to implement those plans could be used to realize a state of no growth in cities and counties. While those instruments have historically been used to promote growth, I argue they could just as effectively be used to stop growth.

Having taught land-use law courses for decades, I recognize that there would be serious legal challenges associated with devising a defensible no-growth strategy, but I believe that those legal considerations would not present insurmountable obstacles to stopping growth. The larger obstacle will be one of recruiting local politicians willing to transform growth management from its current focus on endless growth accommodation to strategies intended to stop growth and initiate the process of creating sustainable communities. I wonder if elected officials in Aspen might be the national trend-setter in this regard by acting to realize a sustainable no-growth state before ongoing growth destroys Aspen’s truly unique environment.

The writer is a professor of urban planning at Eastern Washington University.


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