Missoula, Montana and Boulder, Colorado
Tale of Two Cities
of the best vague political terms being tossed about these days. It makes the speaker sound thoughtful and forward-looking. Political candidates can insist on their strong planning credentials with no fear of contradiction.
But in Austin, as in a number of communities around the country, city planning is beginning to take on an imperative note. The air and water are getting dirtier. Rents are on the rise. Schools and hospitals are more crowded. Locals and newcomers alike are watching with growing dismay as the qualities they love most about their communities are disappearing in rush-hour smog that lasts all day. In response, some of these cities have turned to concrete urban planning strategies to preserve what was meant to be their enduring character.
Included in this article are two western cities of varying sizes, each of which has had some success with planning. Both are dealing with changing economies and growth that's not likely to end any time soon. The issues are the same: sprawling suburbs, a lack of affordable housing, and traffic that pollutes the air and jams the roads. The solutions vary with the place.
An idyllic town nestled in a former lakebed in the Northern Rockies of Western Montana, Missoula began growing at a phenomenal rate in the 1980s and into the 1990s, with a population increase of 6% in the last five years to the current 46,386 residents. West Coast newcomers, seeking refuge from crime-ridden inner cities, traffic, and crowding, have discovered the big blue skies of Montana. A lone lumber yard and paper mill, coupled with scars of clear-cuts from years past on nearby peaks, are the last vestiges of the area's dying resource-based economy. In its place are tourists -- fly fishers lured by the film version of Norman McLean's A River Runs Through It, and RV campers clogging the road linking the town with Glacier National Park to the north. Some stay, forming a base for the state's growing service-sector economy, but in many ways they create, by sheer numbers, the potential for the same congested life they left.
Many newcomers don't settle in Missoula proper, but instead are taking up residence in the Bitterroot or Rattlesnake valleys, just to the south and east of town, respectively. There are no zoning or building regulations in the adjoining Ravalli County, which includes the Bitterroot. The ranches that once sprawled there, just east of the mountain range separating Montana and Idaho, are steadily succumbing to smaller subdivisions and ranchettes. Rattlesnake Valley, a five-minute bike ride from downtown Missoula, has yet to be annexed into the city, after years of zoning battles over density.
The city's most immediate problem is air quality. Missoula regularly ranks among the top five worst cities in the country for its winter smog, due to an air inversion that keeps a cloud hanging over the town five months a year -- a problem exacerbated by the growing commuter traffic from the Bitterroot and Rattlesnake valleys. And the lack of any state laws regarding development (the few state environmental laws were gutted last session by a new Republican-dominated Legislature) leaves the liberal-minded Missoula City Council and mayor struggling for answers.
Some of those answers are, at least, more easily funded than others. Missoula is in the process of deciding how to spend $28.7 million in federal transportation money: A bypass over the horribly congested Malfunction Junction intersection? Widen the highway through the Bitterroot? Or bike lanes and pedestrian bridges? Probably a little of all these ideas will be implemented, says Missoula's transportation planner, Mark Landkammer.
The city has a Non-Motorized Transportation Plan which maps out a gridwork of sidewalks, biking, and walking trails to be placed across the city, and a paid bicycle/pedestrian coordinator promotes those activities. A greenbelt stretches from the downtown Greenough Park all the way to the Rattlesnake Recreation and Wilderness areas, crossing only a few streets on the way. City planners have designed a Master Sidewalk Plan, and hired another non-motorized transportation coordinator who is overseeing the purchase of right-of-ways along the railroad tracks for hike-and-bike trails. Some of the federal money, meanwhile, is going to projects that citizens have wanted for years: A bridge for bikes and pedestrians over the Clark Fork River that runs right through the center of Missoula; and another walkway crossing the railyard, connecting the city's north side with the rest of the town.
For all its inherent small-town feel, Missoula has quite a big reputation, at least with city planners nationwide. And that's due to one man who put Missoula on the map where urban planning is concerned. When conducting interviews with Boulder, Colorado, city staff for the second part of this article, one official asks, "Do people in Missoula think their mayor is as great as everyone else in the country thinks he is?" Dan Kemmis, mayor of Missoula and author of Community and the Politics of Place, does seem to be America's favorite small-town intellectual. Constantly cited in places like Utne Reader and Harper's, Kemmis' theories on community involvement have attracted like-minded people into the town's government, with the ideal of making Missoula live up to its motto as "The Last Best Place."
To answer the Boulder official's question, yes -- many Missoulians adore their mayor. This is a town of active citizens, and Kemmis' ideas represent their vision of a healthy community. In 1992, Kemmis pulled together the Vision 20/20 committee to answer the question, "What should Missoula look like in the year 2020?" The project was derailed midway, however, before any of the answers could be put into policy. The problem: The business community didn't feel represented.
As in Austin, which has a number of plans never realized, Missoula planners are facing the prospect that Vision 20/20 will remain only a dream. "The problem in Missoula is implementation," says Jim McGrath, who sat on the Vision 20/20 committee. Missoula's soft-spoken version of Daryl Slusher, McGrath is a former writer for Missoula's weekly newspaper who just won a bid for a seat on the city council.
"Case in point is the open space plan that's on the table right now. It doesn't designate any specific open space, because if you do that, you can't get it passed. But if your general people will approve of it, then you can't implement it [without space designated]." (Since the interview with McGrath, Missoula passed an open space referendum last month.)
But now, Kemmis thinks his latest project will fix what was wrong with Vision 20/20; he calls it "scenario planning," an idea he borrowed from a friend in the private sector who suggested that such an approach might work for both the city and the county governments.
"Most planning involves picking a pathway and trying to make the future conform to your ideas," Kemmis says. "Scenario planning acknowledges that it's not possible to control or absolutely predict what's going to happen. Instead, you get people to identify two or three plausible scenarios, then pick the one you're most interested in pursuing. It creates a whole lot of flexibility, and also helps factions agree. They might not like a certain scenario, but they can say, `I see how it might happen,' and then go from there."
Missoula is also succeeding where some cities fail in integrating neighborhood associations into the community decision-making process. Indeed, unlike Austin officials who are elected at-large, Missoula's 12 council representatives are tied to their neighborhoods. Unpopular or ineffective councilmembers do not last long, and in recent years, citizens have been electing New Party candidates -- progressive activists who usually place planning among their highest priorities. Thirteen neighborhood associations send representatives to the Neighborhood Network, which in turn participates in the Growth Management Task Force. "Neighborhoods have the power to block a lot of initiatives, and a few neighborhoods banding together certainly have the power to kill zoning," Kemmis says. "So, it's crucial to have the neighborhoods genuinely involved."
Missoula's other major growth problem is a familiar one for residents in Boulder and in Austin: housing. There's not only no affordable housing in Missoula, there's no housing, period. Doris Fischer, the city's senior planner, says Missoula is trying to put guidelines in place that will steer the town away from situations like Boulder, where tiny rooms start at $450 a month. Specifically, she says, the city may soon require that all new residential developments include at least 20% affordable housing. "It parallels a major mapping effort of our critical resources, groundwater flows, riparian resources, wildlife habitat," she says. "We're trying to combine what people would like to see happen with the limitations of the area."
While Missoula may be just finding out what it's like to be a "destination" city, Boulder, Colorado has lived it for decades, and is a lot further along in planning. But in making the town such a nice place to be, it seems overrun with new residents. City councilmember Spence Havlick agrees that Boulder may be a victim of its own planning. Since 1976, when the city capped its residential construction rate at 2% annual increase over existing housing stock, Boulder's rents have skyrocketed. Displaced Californians and Denverites, mountain bikers and "rock jocks" looking to scale the cliffs of the nearby Flatirons, have crowded this mid-sized city until the rents are formidable and jobs scarce. "The irony of this, to be quite blunt, is that the more a community like this tries to limit growth," Havlick says, "the more that's where people want to live."
The city sits inside a 30,000-acre greenbelt, about 45 minutes northwest of Denver. By city ordinance, there is no construction above the "blue line," an imaginary boundary at about 6,000 feet elevation. The boundary was set to protect the town's mountain lakes and glacial water sources, and construction of any kind is prohibited in the flood plain. The city limits building heights to three stories to prevent the density that would lead to traffic problems, though exemptions are available for up to five stories (which is as high as the city's firetruck ladders will go). Bicycle lanes stretch along many streets, and the downtown area includes a "mall" -- a street closed to cars and populated mostly by strolling college students, families, street musicians, and vendors.
Most of Boulder's planning innovations are unique to that city, says Will Fleissig, director of the city's department of community design, planning, and development. Boulder has been trying to slow down its growth since 1958, leading the rest of the country in its strategies. "It's pretty unusual -- Boulder's not afraid to invent stuff," he says. One of its latest inventions is a "congestion pricing" traffic study, which involves implanting computer chips in people's cars to detect when they drive or park downtown during peak hours. Though the program is still in the planning stages, officials envision assessing some sort of fee to these drivers -- sort of like a combined computerized parking meter and toll road -- which will be mailed in the form of a bill at the end of the month. This money, Havlick says, will likely be used to fund more bike trails and shuttle buses.
Another of Boulder's more innovative strategies is its population cap. A few years back, the city left ballots on everyone's door with the intent of deciding how to handle growth -- 80% of those who responded wanted no more growth. "We've realized that we have to live within our means," Havlick explains. The city agreed not to annex any of the surrounding areas, and decided that Boulder can only support a population between 98,000 and 102,000. "Basically, if we behave like a city of 95,000, conserving our resources, driving less, we could go to a city of 102,000 to 103,000 well-behaved citizens," he says.
Typical of many Boulder officials and residents, Havlick is an energetic, optimistic man. A professor at the New College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado, Havlick serves on the Boulder Urban Renewal Authority, and claims specialization in the areas of "natural hazard mitigation, urban resource management, and public participation in the planning process." Speaking a year and a half ago at a conference for environmental journalists, he explained the population cap to about 40 incredulous reporters. "What can you do? Put up signs on the highway that you don't want anyone moving here?" asked one writer. No, not exactly. Within the greenbelt, Boulder has another 1,000 acres available for development, Havlick says. With such a small area left, the competition for building permits is fierce, and the city uses that competition to get the sort of development it wants. For example, 80% of future residential construction is to be affordable housing, and anyone wanting to locate a business in the area must provide housing and transportation for its workers. When issuing building permits, the city gives preferences to "mixed use," "green" builders. For instance, to get a building permit, a new house cannot cast a shadow over other homes, "for future solar energy possibilities," Havlick explains.
Another method of implementing the population cap was attempted this fall when the city council placed limits on commercial and industrial growth. But a ballot initiative failed this November that would have lowered those limits to a stringent 1% growth per year, matching the rate set for residential construction a couple of years ago. Normally, the city approves between 750,000 and one million square feet of annual commercial development, but the proposed limits on the ballot would have cut that down to about 250,000 square feet, Havlick says -- about the size of two large retail stores. The vote could indicate a gap, at least in terms of commercial development, between the council's wishes and the general public.
Unfortunately, much of Boulder's planning and building limits have come at the expense of diversity. Students at the University of Colorado compete for outrageously priced rooms, driving out the few low-income families left in the city. Many of the city's restaurants, bars, and retail stores cater to wealthy and usually white clientele, with a few greasy diners clinging to the outskirts of the town. The high cost of living has encouraged the growth of a good-sized, "trustafarian" culture -- trust-fund kids with no job skills who grow their hair into dredlocks and spend their time -- along with profuse amounts of cash -- enjoying the town's laid-back culture.
The city has reached an agreement with the university to limit enrollment increases to 1,500 students over the next 10 years, which should relieve some of the pressure on working-class families who are being pushed out into neighboring towns like Niwot and Nederland. But there is still no rent control, nothing to stop landlords from endlessly raising their rents as the city reaches its limits. But, then again, diversity doesn't seem to be Boulder's first priority.
"The question is, can an American city become sustainable economically, physically, and resource-wise," says Havlick. "So now the experiment is underway." n