When Growth Management Fails, Build New Towns

Growth management is only slowing the eventual demise of the modern city. Richard Carson proposes starting over and offers his criteria for "New Towns."

5 minute read

April 18, 2001, 12:00 AM PDT

By Richard H. Carson

Rich CarsonGrowth management -- that most aggressive form of land use planning being practiced in states like Oregon, Washington and Florida -- has proven to be an illusion for those of us who live in the growing metropolitan areas. The point of growth management is to create a rational and compact urban growth form -- using urban growth boundaries -- where we optimize our infrastructure costs and utilize our land more efficiently. Conversely, we preserve cost-efficient resource lands outside the boundary. That is why "sprawl" is basically inefficient.

Unfortunately, our practical experience is that over time today's metro-complexes are in the process of becoming urban ghettos. With growth management this process is simply occurring slower than in those places not practicing growth management. In other words, we have "managed" to slow the advent of the disease, but not cure it. Growth management cannot change the fact that overcrowding, traffic congestion and poor air quality is what we will end up with.

The Dying Citi-states

The primary problem with today's new approaches to land use planning (i.e., growth management, neo-traditional town planning, smart growth) is that they all politically accept the continued growth of the existing urban form. Certainly they try to contain it and to even redevelop it, but it is still like poking a stick at a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The dinosaur it is not manageable and will eventually eat you.

Quite frankly, it may be impossible to adapt a new development approach to the massive and dysfunctional metro-complexes. The history of human settlements is that when people get sick of a place, they leave it. Humanity has followed this pattern for 5,000 years. Certainly, we should prepare for the eventual demise and possible reconstruction of such areas. However, the truth is that the existing metro-complexes already have given up on vast areas where poverty, illiteracy, socio-economic disparity and hopelessness reign supreme. Such places are better bulldozed than allowed to be kept on life support.

The death of the citi-state will be mourned by some because of the perception it has given us a greater cultural appreciation of the fine arts. However, the truth is that the dark side of such places is not worth the miserable existence of the many at the expense of a few intellectuals or tourists. I would argue that Eugene, Oregon; Santa Fe, New Mexico and Austin, Texas are as culturally enriched as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The only difference is that these places are much smaller.

Some will also argue that ignoring the existing urbanization pattern is denying reality and is a worthless exercise. My response is that is never too late to create a totally new way of building cities.

Towards a New Model

There is a better approach! What is needed is an entirely new model. A new city built from the ground up. I suggest we first start with a clean slate. Eliminate the pre-condition that we fix the mess we have created in our existing cities. Let us test our theories on some less productive virgin landscape and see if the theories work and meet our objectives. We must first list out everything we want to happen in such a place. This includes the level of livability, ease of mobility, air and water quality, socio-economic equity, cultural diversity, and minimum and maximum densities.

So what are the characteristics of a New Town?

  • Limit the size of cities. No city over a certain size - let's say 100,000 people - would be allowed to expand geographically. Indeed, we may wish to set minimum and maximum densities within such areas. This may result in metropolitan areas eventually having no new growth.
  • The cities would be limited geographical by a fixed urban growth boundary and buffered from the next city by open space and large lot rural zoning.
  • The transit of the future should be more inter-city than intra-city. Changing the city size changes the need for local transit. Indeed most transit will be to get you from home to work - which will probably in a nearby city.
  • Instead of planning for a 20-year time horizon, we would plan for a permanent end state for all the following generations.

Cities, like eco-systems, have an inherent carrying capacity. It is the pathology of both size and density. It is an inverse relationship. Think of carrying capacity as a "span of control" over which people can manage the urban environment easily. However, once you lose the "span of control" the urban environment starts to manage its denizens.

Under the New Town model, those metropolitan areas that are greatly over the targeted population level should be considered for disaggregation. In other words, we may want to slowly dismantle them into smaller more manageable units. This could be done be defining existing edges and turning them into larger visible buffers. This New Town approach would mean some neighborhoods, people and places could reassert their local authority.

Some will laugh and call this the Mayberry model. Some will become angry because they will see the new town strategy as opening the floodgates and allowing humanity to escape the metropolis. But the fact is we have failed to deliver on the promise of growth management and our citizens demand a better alternative. So let's give them New Towns.


Richard Carson is an urban planner and a freelance journalist. He is also past director of planning for Metro (the Portland, Oregon regional government which represents one million people), past editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal and is currently a member of the mayor's Growth Management Committee in Portland. He can be reached at [email protected] or through his Utopia website.

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