Oregon: Where’s the Growth Control?

by Kevin Adams

In September of 1998 I had a wonderful opportunity to serve another year in AmeriCorps National Service (“domestic Peace Corps”). The Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE) Program provided me a great opportunity to work as an assistant planner in Talent for one year and learn firsthand one of the best land use systems in the country. I have met some dedicated public servants and citizens in my tenure and wouldn’t trade away this experience for anything.

However, my initial impression of the Rogue Valley in August of 1998 was a much different experience. As I crawled off the freeway after a breathtaking five-hour drive to interview for the position the image before me was as clear and distinct as deja vu. I had never seen southern Oregon until this trip, but as I drove past the urban areas of Grants Pass and Medford all I could think was that each could pose as a poster child of suburban style sprawl. It was almost a carbon copy version of “Anyplace, USA” despite the infamous land use laws in Oregon that I read about for years. I asked myself, “how do we identify and define livable communities?”

This beautiful state has a national reputation as a land use and environmental leader, but underneath the thin veneer of policy is a state no different than other communities across the nation struggling to just say no to the “all growth is good” concept. If only the rest of the country could see the image of Oregon that I see with its strip malls, auto centers, and a comic book-like reflection of fast food establishments contained only by a line in the sand. (It’s far different than the glossy catalogue that the Oregon Tourism Commission produces each year.)

Unfortunately, Oregonians have been lulled into a false sense of environmental security by the omnipresent urban growth boundary. The UGB is an innovative concept that does preserve farmland, but when implemented without a comprehensive, community-based approach it is just another political line and not the solution for designing livable communities inside the boundary.

I was drawn to the concept of urban growth boundaries as a refugee from the East Coast looking for answers to the enormous problems of an inefficient land use system in my home state. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, my allegiance for most of my life, was once a bucolic landscape of farms, hardwood forests, and quaint historical towns. Unfortunately, it has been transformed into a bubonic and cancerous conglomeration of auto-dependent boroughs, townships, and vacated cities that have little individual sense of place or identity. Oregon offered an opportunity of solutions to a complex set of issues in Pennsylvania.

Although Oregon is still a wide open and inviting place, thanks to the vision of a groundbreaking land use system sculpted by dedicated individuals, such as Hector Macpherson and the mythical prowess of Gov. Tom McCall, many towns continue to struggle to reinvent their “main streets.” Instead “big box” retail centers seem to mutate on every corner with their oceans of asphalt and lifeless atmosphere while urban renewal agencies continue to pour more concrete into an endless pit of ineffective solutions to resuscitate the heart of the community. Moreover, municipalities keep annexing more land and building more conventional subdivisions, which require more infrastructure and expense for the community. Are there better alternatives for creating livable communities?

I have lived here for over three years as a student of the culture of the Northwest. This past year was an invaluable experience serving as a planner for a friendly, small town among a region with an insatiable appetite for development. It was a chance to learn the infamous land use system within a larger framework of the region. However, as I leave this area I continue to wonder if the Rogue Valley gives itself the moniker for identification reasons only, or does it truly want a cohesive community with a uniform vision as indicated by the Healthy and Sustainable Communities Project? The Rogue Valley will need to make critical choices if it wants to avoid “Californication” and the inevitable cloning that develops with this condition.  Longer commutes, loss of environmental resources, lack of affordable housing, and a lack of public spaces such as town squares, parks, and open space will be the status quo for this region. Will the citizens, and not just “consumers,” proactively implement the Rogue Valley Civic League’s “Blueprint for the Future”?

Unfortunately, so many communities and regions that have taken the first step to develop regional plans do not implement them for various reasons. More often than not master plans and vision statements end up in the archives to collect dust for bookworms of the library system to rediscover.

My service-learning opportunity in the Rogue Valley included a stint in Ashland, considered a near utopia by many individuals and families. Ashland is on the cutting edge on many issues as a result of citizen involvement and a committed group of public servants. The first response I usually hear about Ashland is that it’s too expensive. Yes, it is pricey for the average Joe, but one must consider the amount of planning and social capital that went into this town that makes it such a successful place. A manicured park system, pedestrian-oriented transportation network, design standards for housing, historic preservation, and the list goes on. It is my view that a majority of individuals and families are willing to support a higher level of service through increased rates (sales or property tax) if they see a return on their investment. Why should cities like Ashland be the exception instead of the norm in this region?

This is excerpted from the Oregon Planners Journal, an APA newsletter, which reprinted it from the August 30 issue of Ashland Tidings. Kevin Adams is a graduate student in the Community and Regional Planning program at the University of Oregon.

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