All across America, growth problems arise

Kai Hagen

August 25, 2005

My family recently returned from a big-time road trip. We crossed the continent twice, with more than a few zigzags along the way.

While I don't recommend it as the most relaxing way to spend a vacation, and we aren't likely to do it again anytime soon, it seemed like something the kids ought to experience at least once.

I can't bore you with any vacation photos here, but I'll share a few broad observations.

The most obvious one is that we live in a big country. Really big.

This isn't news, of course. Nevertheless, living in Maryland, or looking at maps, even gazing out windows on airplanes doesn't adequately convey the amount of space out there, especially in the west.

For all the remarkable and distinct places along the way, as you go west it's the vast expanses of relatively empty space that capture your attention and imagination.

The biggest reason for such vast, open spaces is the lack of water.
Add or subtract water, and everything changes.

Whether it comes with the climate or a pipeline, more water means more farms, more towns, more people. Less water means, well, less of everything.

It's a curious irony that the driest places in the country are the most shaped by water -- the physical landscape and peopled places.

There's a great deal more public land as you go west. More and bigger national parks, expansive national forests, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and more.

Such public lands have made commonplace in the west something exceptional in the east. Small towns and big cities alike are often near or next to extensive wildlands, off limits to development.

And for all the well-publicized growth in the west, especially along the coast, in and around the Rockies and in the desert sunbelt, there are a lot fewer people on the land.

Wyoming, for instance, which is 10 times larger than Maryland, or 150 times the size of Frederick County, has less than half as many people as Montgomery County.

While that boggles the mind, it isn't as surprising as the fact that burgeoning California would have 90 million people if it had the same population density as Maryland.

Anyway, the east and west are different in so many ways.

Apples and oranges.

Still, it's illuminating to take a look at some of the differences and similarities in the way growth issues are being experienced here and there.

Certainly, some differences are glaring.

For example, here we face the continuing prospect of unchecked cities and towns and suburbs growing into each other, merging to create huge metropolitan areas that, in turn, merge into other metropolitan areas to create "megalopolis."

We face the prospect -- it's only a matter of time, really -- of developing all agricultural areas and woodlands that are not actively and securely protected. No national forest is going to constrain the growth here. No mountain is too rugged. There are no inhospitable deserts.

So, if western cities and towns are smaller on average, and most don't have to worry about expanding into the next one down the road, and massive public holdings guarantee ample open spaces, why is growth management such a hot political issue in so many western places?

Well, for a lot of reasons, including many of the same reasons they're serious issues here.

With only minor regional variations (sometimes), we're looking at the same sort of growth pressures and politics, the same sort of monied interests investing to influence the process, the same sort of suburban street plans and commercial strips, and so on.

With all the room in the world, and then some, places like Boise, Idaho, are experiencing sky-high infrastructure costs, pressure to increase taxes, inadequate public facilities, crowded schools and traffic congestion.

Sound familiar?

The challenges and problems we share with western cities and towns, in spite of all the differences, reveal that beyond any concerns about maintaining rural areas and preserving open space, the basic way we're building our communities is not working. It isn't working here or there.

We've all been listening to the wrong people, and repeating the same mistakes all over the country.

Any real solutions to problems so common and widespread requires putting an end to business as usual.

And that has to start with the people we elect to represent our interests and make these decisions. If they can't think outside the box, it's past time to send them on a nice long vacation..

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at