Evolve, Rethink and Reinvent

ADVISOR: Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in downtown Billings. Photo by Rachel Girt.

ADVISOR: Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in downtown Billings. Photo by Rachel Girt.

by Rachel Girt, WP Editor

Trends in demographics, the economy and culture are changing the way we think about sustainability, the built environment, and economic development, said former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, President of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute, in his keynote address at the 2012 Western Planner/APA Chapter conference in Billings, MT. 

“The sooner that we recognize the factors that are shaping our communities, the sooner we can begin the task of working together to adapt our development patterns to meet them and begin rebuilding our local economies,” he said.

Glendening pointed out that the fastest population growth and most drastic demographic changes are happening right here in the West in places like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

These states have seen extraordinary growth in recent decades, largely as a result of inmigration following the economic recession and the rising immigrant population, he added.  This growth has created real problems of managing that level of sprawl expansion.  

Beyond these boom and bust patterns, three overarching demographic factors exist that will greatly impact our future across the nation and throughout the West.

  • Decline in households with kids: In 1960, around half of our country consisted of households, usually married, with children. Today nearly 70 percent of our households are no longer the traditional families upon which current development patterns were started.
  • Growth of senior population: Nearly one in five Americans are expected to be over age 65 by the year 2030. Today, the largest majorities of seniors are not retiring to the beach or moving into a nursing home and are choosing to remain where they are and “age-in-place.”
  • Demands from “Generation Y”: This group, ranging in age from about 18 to 30-years-old, also known as the Millennials, includes 91 million people. Statistics show that when choosing where to live, Millennials prioritize proximity to work, a sense of community, and easy access to restaurants, other commercial uses and transit.

Glendening further explained what the demographics mean to planners. “Our communities must offer opportunities for our growing senior population to age-in-place, and they must offer neighborhoods that our young people want to stay in or return to when they start their careers and their families.”

These demographic trends combined with what has been produced in the built environment lately are setting us up for a drastic mismatch between what people want and what we have built, he stated.

“It may sound amazing, but the turnover in our built environment is much faster than people think.  We have not yet built half of what will be standing in 2030, and two-thirds of what will be there by 2050, according to researcher Arthur Nelson from University of Utah.”

These amazing figures point to a great opportunity to invest in a form of growth for the next 40 years that can improve the economic outlook while also providing people with better living options, Glendening reassured the audience.

However, Glendening added that communities with a strong sense of place will be the ones that ultimately succeed in the future. “If intellectual capital can pick up and move to wherever it wants, why would they not choose regions where they can enjoy a high quality of life?”
“They are moving away from places where they have to wake up early and sit in traffic for hours, just to go about their daily lives while they watch their beloved open spaces disappear and their hometowns become empty, denuded ghost towns. They are moving to places larger or smaller that are walkable, livable, and offer a high quality of life.”

Glendening encouraged those in the audience to take up the challenges of understanding new trends, capitalizing on new development opportunities and thinking about the future in new and strategic ways.  “We must evolve, rethink and reinvent.”

“I will not pretend that smart growth alone will solve all our problems.  But imagine if you could accommodate a changing population, while preserving farmland, improving mobility, securing our energy future, and increasing economic competitiveness. That is a vision worth working hard to achieve.”

It’s all about messaging

Before Governor Glendening gave his keynote address, he stopped to visit with the WP editor to discuss the importance of messaging to planning efforts.

“You can have the greatest substance in the world but if your messaging doesn’t reach the people that matter you are not going to succeed,” Glendening said.

He admits that the importance that he places on the role of messaging probably stems from observations from 31 years spent in public office, serving as Maryland’s governor for two terms and as county executive for three terms. 

Smart growth is not just happening in large cities, he said, noting that some of the most exciting efforts are occurring in small and medium-sized jurisdictions like Billings. 

Yet, the West faces unique challenges such as strong support of property rights, anti-planning advocates and much of the population living in relatively small towns, Glendening added. 
Glendening  encourages planners to drop the use of terms such as smart growth and sustainability. “I urge people to put it into terms that the average person, who believes in property rights and is suspicious of government planning, understands.” 

Instead, he suggests stressing how efforts save money. “Taxpayers’ dollars are wasted by building new roads, new schools, and new water and sewer all to accommodate sprawl. So it is a matter of simply being fiscally conservative.”  

The second thing that Glendening tries to emphasize is economic competitiveness. “The knowledge-based economy of the future looks for communities with a real sense of place and the shiny brights coming out of college are not going to stay in your jurisdiction or return to your jurisdiction if there is no sense of place.”

Glendening’s advice is don’t waste time arguing. “Shift immediately to discussing what people care about. They care about saving tax dollars, saving money in their own household, being economically competitive, and knowing where their parents and children are going to live.” 

Published in the October/November 2012 The Western Planner

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