Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Can a Fast-Growing City Save Itself?: The Planning Ethic vs. Property Rights in Booming Boise, Idaho

Seemingly out of nowhere, Boise, Idaho, has become one of the country's fastest-growing cities and, according to Zillow, the city that saw the most home value appreciation in the last decade.  The boom is so profound it warranted a section on NBC's Today show.

Having lived in Boise for the last decade, I have seen this growth up close.  As someone who studies growth, I also know that many of the pains Boise is enduring now are similar to other fast-growth western cities.  The question in my mind has been:  can Boise learn the lessons of other fast-growth cities before all the obvious problems of poorly-managed development start to stack up.  And so, I wrote an article trying to think through what Boise should learn from other cities' experience, and also trying to think through the most likely path:  that Boise fails to heed the warnings of these other places that have boomed before us.  For anyone interested in fast-growth cities--or anyone who is interested in some local color about the last major western town to boom--you might check out my draft article, "Can America’s Fastest-Growing City Save Itself?: Property Rights and the Planning Ethic in Boise, Idaho."  

Here is the clip from the Today Show:


And here is the teaser intro from my article:

In 1974, an article in Harper’s Magazine declared that “[i]f things go on as they are, Boise [Idaho] stands an excellent chance of becoming the first American city to have deliberately eradicated itself.”  At the time, Boise had decided to try its hand at urban renewal, just as many other cities were abandoning the federally-funded decimation of American downtowns.  In Boise, the map of “blighted” properties to be torn down approximated half of each of the 50 blocks of the city’s downtown.  That is, to say, the city was in the process of eradicating itself with the only plan for what would come next being a mall.  Disinvestment in the urban core followed the plan’s release leaving a hollowed-out core and a bleak future for the city.  The Harper’s article, written by a Boise-born author turned Brooklynite, described the scene:  “[O]n a recent warm, bright Tuesday morning—perfect shopper’s weather—a cannonball, if fired the length of the sidewalk” along the “principal canyon of trade along Idaho Street,” “would have struck exactly nineteen people.”

            How times have changed.  In 2017, the U.S. Census declared Boise the fastest-growing city in America.  In 2020, Meridian and Nampa, two of Boise’s suburban communities, were named among the ten fastest-growing cities in the United States.  In 2021, Zillow announced that Idaho was the state with the highest home price appreciation in the decade between 2010 and 2020.  Almost all of that appreciation came in the Boise metropolitan region, which Zillow noted saw a jaw-dropping appreciation of “over three times” in that decade. 

            In many ways, Boise’s growth shouldn’t be a surprise.  It has been on numerous “best of” lists for decades.  It has a four-season climate without the extremes of other parts of the country and has been named one of the cities with environments expected to adjust to climate change best.  There is plenty to do outdoors, and there is a generally congenial “let’s work together” attitude about most things. 

            There also are not that many more places to develop in the Intermountain West.  The Intermountain West region’s lands are dominated by federal land management agencies, which own and control sixty to eighty percent of land within state boundaries and are thus are off-limits for private development.  Despite the limited space for development, the Intermountain West has been one of the fastest growing regions in the country for several decades.  The result is that Boise is the last of the major Mountain West communities to experience exponential growth.  The city, and increasingly the broader regions known as the Treasure Valley, faces increasingly rapid urbanization but without a history of land use planning tools to assist it or, it must also be noted, the planning spirit.  Planning almost always requires tools afforded only to government, and Idaho—both on the right and left—tends to eschew government for private governance.  The result has been a hodge-podge of development islands in the Treasure Valley that have led to the predictable problems:  traffic, housing affordability problems, concerns over quality of life, crowded schools, strained infrastructure, and the usual fast-growth city complaints about the newcomers.  Despite that, Boise’s growth is almost certainly still at the beginning of its hyperbolic rise.  The growth problems are relative to the city’s not-so-distant past when it nearly took a wrecking ball to the whole city.  There is time to get growth right, but is there the will, and can the region—not just the city—find a way?

            While the changes growth has brought feel new to those who have lived in the city for a long time and sometimes created tension, the Boise region’s moment isn’t that different from mid-sized cities around the country and around the world that are finding themselves suddenly facing growth issues that had previously affected only a few of the world’s largest cities.  As a result, Boise presents a tremendous case study to evaluate the tools available for growing cities in Idaho and other Western states.  It is also a useful case study to evaluate how other similarly-situated mid-sized cities around the country, and perhaps even the world, can plan for sustainable development.  If a developed economy with a functioning rule of law cannot plan for growth in a place like Boise, how can we expect developing countries to face a crush of urbanization into cities that hardly existed just decades ago?

What can Boise and these twenty-first century new cities learn from planning mistakes of twentieth century?  Land use controls first arose, in their modern context, to address the dual rise of urbanization and industrialization.  But planning and land use controls were largely useless in containing the sprawl and congestion of the automobile-dominated city, and arguably complicit in it.  Land use controls also struggled to keep up with changing relationships to government, taxation, and personal autonomy.  What policies were pursued created lop-sided results, whether it was poorly-maintained federal public housing, racially-segregated communities, or a mid-century embrace of community participation that devolved, all too often, into the “not in my back yard” (“NIMBY”) and “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything” (BANANA”) camps. 

The twenty-first century will almost certainly bring unanticipated challenges to fast-growth cities in addition to those already inherited.  Chief among them will be climate change, as growth almost always reaches into areas of environmental sensitivity and disaster, such as flood and wildfire, that will only increase as the planet warms.  At the same time, development patterns play a key role in addressing climate change because they dramatically affect energy consumption through building efficiency, transit options, and more. 

Put simply, if a place like Boise can address growth effectively, there is great hope not just for this particular region’s future as an exciting place to live and work, but for the hundreds—if not thousands—of twenty-first century new cities around the world facing rapid growth.  But will Boise be able to change its approach to growth and governance fast enough?

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