How America grows: A tale of two cities
Gilbert, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., have approached expansion in two very different ways.
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"It's the issue everyone talks about and believes could be the ultimate limit on future growth," says Rita Maguire, president of the research organization ThinkAZ in Phoenix. "But very few people have a grasp of the real situation. The subdivisions are being staked out one after another with no time for comprehensive planning."Skip to next paragraph
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One thing that newcomers say attracts them to such new communities – especially in the West, where much of US population growth is happening – is the nearby mountains and recreational opportunities. But that can have a downside as well.
Every day, the US loses 6,000 acres of open space to development – nearly 4 acres a minute. Much of that loss is near national forests and other public lands.
"Our land development is outpacing population growth, especially in rural areas where the pattern of growth is low-density, dispersed housing," Dale Bosworth, chief of the US Forest Service, wrote recently. "Counties with national forests and grasslands are experiencing some of the highest growth rates as people move to be close to public lands."
Then there's the other vision for US towns and cities: urban revitalization.
Professional planners often joke that Americans dislike both major US development trends: sprawl and infill. If metropolitan Phoenix typifies the first, Portland aspires to the second.
Because Portland doesn't have the wide open spaces of Arizona – it's hemmed in by the Columbia River on one side and well-established suburbs on the others – the city's growth possibilities are limited. That's one reason its focus is on existing neighborhood potential.
The best known effort is in the Pearl District, a downtown former warehouse area that's being transformed into condos and apartments, often built above retail shops, galleries, and other businesses and offices, with transit facilities, grocery stores, parks, and other amenities nearby.
City officials have planned for 5,000 housing units in the district – roughly a 2 percent increase in the city's housing stock. About 1,000 of the units are meant to be "affordable" to those with an annual household income of less than $30,000.
So far, about two-thirds of the planned housing units have been built, including 800 of the affordable ones, says city commissioner Sam Adams. To preserve affordability, a local nonprofit organization owns the land on which the housing is built.
"We've mixed affordable units with the most expensive, and we've made sure the quality for all of them is the same," says Mr. Adams. "But we need to do a better job of building housing that's suitable for families with children," he adds, because most such units have only one bedroom.
"We've worked really hard to design our city so that density is viewed as an amenity as opposed to a detraction from our livability," says Adams. Building around public transit, including light rail and modern street cars, has been one of the most important aspects here.
Portland may be a leader among US cities facing demographic shifts, but it is not without major challenges. Among these: economic development that creates new jobs in an era of increasing globalization; finding a financially viable way to extend public transit into more neighborhoods to reduce downtown auto traffic; and dealing with a rapidly aging infrastructure. Portland has a 600-mile backlog in street maintenance as well as many bridges needing repair.