In this continuing series, Editor Marilyn Hempel of www.populationpress.org , entertained “Organizing for a Sustainable Population at the Local Level, by Jack Marshall.
Today, with the hoopla over elections and every candidate promising the moon, stars and cherry pie—in the end, it all gets down to the ‘brass tacks’ of personal action. Therefore, you’re invited to work at the community level for change toward a sustainable future. Such websites as www.transitionus.org will give you plenty of information to begin. Additionally, I know Jack Marshall personally and he leads the nation for his expertise on local sustainability. His story:
“Eight years ago I was among a dozen local environmental activists who gathered to grumble about the pace and impacts of population growth in our Charlottesville/Albemarle County (VA) community1,” said Marshal. “We were dismayed by public- and private-sector leaders’ unwillingness to acknowledge that growth was causing—or at least exacerbating—most of the undesirable changes in the region. We were frustrated by municipal governments’ inability to tackle growth decisively2 and puzzled that the area’s several local environmental organizations, progressive on most topics, refused to support population issues with other than conventional “ smart growth” thinking.
"Our small group agreed that “ smart growth” was a short-term approach to planning flawed by its fundamental accommodation of endless expansion (but in the nicest way)3, and maintained that we needed something with a more far-reaching vision to protect our community.
“During a year of fractious discussions, we created ASAP—Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population.
“ASAP founders proposed what seemed to us a common-sense strategy for dealing with local growth: use “ smart growth” tools to manage development in the short term, but simultaneously insist that local governments identify an optimal sustainable population size to cap growth in the community, and use this “right size” as a basis for municipal planning decisions. “ Smart growth,” we contended, was necessary but not sufficient.
“To avoid reinventing wheels, and to help our community build on others’ experience, we’ve been searching for American localities that have estimated their optimal sustainable population size and then used that figure in community planning. We’ve had no success in identifying such places, suggesting that ASAP’s vision was more innovative and audacious than we realized.
“ASAP’s mission is to increase knowledge and awareness about the effects of the community’s population growth on our natural environment and quality of life, and to encourage land use policies and mechanisms that will enable our region to reach and maintain an optimal sustainable population size.”
We think our community should be having three debates:Can our population grow endlessly, or should we cap growth at an optimal sustainable size? What is that “right” size? What fair and legal mechanisms would allow us to reach and maintain our population size goal?
“Though these questions are clearly related, they’re analytically distinct,” said Marshall. “We do not accept rejection of the need to cap growth, for example, simply because we don’t now agree on an optimal size or because we can’t yet figure out how to do it. Some in ASAP believe that half our battle will be won when local pro-growth factions argue with us about what the “right” size should be; at that point they have tacitly subscribed to the principle of placing a cap on growth.
“Because net migration accounts for three-quarters of local growth, our approach to limiting our community’s size rests solely on restricting the number of available residential units. For tactical reasons, ASAP takes no stand on fertility regulation or national immigration policies; our focus on land use (which of course involves property rights) arouses quite enough opposition without taking on other contentious issues.
“Despite our effort to reduce overall development potential, ASAP strongly supports programs to provide low-cost, affordable housing for low- and moderate-income current residents. We recognize that if the supply of residential units is limited but demand continues, housing prices will likely rise. Because this disproportionately impacts the poor, ASAP strongly supports public-private partnerships to ensure that the stock of affordable housing is adequate.
ASAP’S Program of Activities
“ASAP works in four program areas (a fuller account of each is available on our website www.ASAPnow.org):
“Advocacy: ASAP presents formal statements on growth-related issues to city and county decision-making bodies, and informally meets with community leaders to share information and present our views. We avoid speaking for or against specific residential or commercial developments except when they illustrate a larger policy issue of importance to ASAP.
“Policy development: ASAP’s policy efforts are devoted to (a) trying to incorporate the notion of a population cap in Comprehensive Plans, and (b) broadening and strengthening the existing array of “ smart growth” tools already in place (by supporting new phasing and clustering regulations; encouraging measures ensuring that developers rather than taxpayers pay the real costs of new residential units; opposing proposals to expand designated growth areas; etc.).
“Research: Begun in 2008, ASAP’s Optimal Sustainable Population Size (OSPS) Project4 implements research to help identify an optimal sustainable size (or, more realistically, a range) for the Charlottesville and Albemarle County community, now with a combined population of 135,000. The specific public policy question is: How big can this community grow and still protect its environment, retain its cherished quality of life, and maintain its distinctive character for future generations? For example, would a population size of 200,000 be optimal and sustainable? Half a million? A million?
“The first phase of the OSPS Project, completed in the Fall of 2009, consists of five studies exploring the local biological carrying capacity, all designed and implemented by independent scientists. The two main investigations are (a) an assessment of our community's ecological footprint and bio-capacity (in collaboration with Global Footprint Network in California), and (b) estimates of the impacts of future population growth on local ecosystem services [the final report of this research is available at http://www.ASAPnow.org/OSPSFinalReport_Aug05.pdf]. Three smaller studies examine the probable effects of future growth (c) on local air quality, (d) on local groundwater, and (e) on stream health.
“The second phase of the Project will focus on socio-economic issues that could help define our optimal population size. One study will explore likely changes in the character of the community as it grows; another will estimate the economic costs of continued population increases.
“Community education: To enrich the debate about local population issues, ASAP provides public forums (often involving spirited discussions with pro-growth advocates), a website, a speakers’ bureau, monthly newsletter and other publications (the most recent is the booklet, “Frequently Asked Questions about ASAP and Local Growth,” at http://www.stopgrowthasap.org/documents/ASAPFAQsbrochure(FirsteditionMay2009).doc).
“With generous foundation support,5 ASAP is now preparing an extensive community outreach program to discuss with residents the policy implications of the research findings of our OSPS Project; if successful, the studies’ results will change the way our community thinks about growth. This new education effort will stress the strategic importance of making community decisions in the framework of ecological limits, and explain how local population size is an integral element of sustainability.
“ASAP’s success in its seven-year existence? The sharp decline in new housing starts in the past year had nothing to do, regrettably, with our efforts. Indeed, we fear that the effects of the economic slowdown will lull the area into a false confidence that our growth is under control. The changes created by ASAP, through its program of activities and 340 members, have thus far occurred primarily through incremental adjustments of some residents’ knowledge and attitudes and visions, not yet manifested in reduced zoning densities or Comprehensive Plan amendments. A year ago Albemarle County supervisors and Charlottesville City councilors voted to help fund the OSPS research; the county provided $25,000 and the city $11,000. That expression of confidence indicates that ASAP’s key concept—that local growth should stop at a community’s “right size”—is no longer seen as unthinkable. The myths that growth is inevitable and always good are beginning to be debunked, a step toward enlightenment for which ASAP takes some of the credit.
“ASAP’s insistence that our locality must plan now to stop growth at an optimal sustainable size makes our organization uncommon. ASAP’s research to help estimate that optimal sustainable size, and the collateral community education effort, makes us unique.
“In this situation, though, “unique” is not desirable. We would much prefer to be just one within a vibrant network of similar local organizations spread across the country, exchanging ideas and building on each others’ experiences.
Establishing Similar Groups in Other Communities
“And that wish, we believe, will some day be fulfilled. In the coming years more and more environmental and other civic activists working at the local level will recognize that their communities’ “ smart growth” accommodations fail to halt a relentless inflow of new residents; the social, economic, and environmental impacts are merely postponed.
“New grass-roots groups, aimed at stopping local growth at an optimal sustainable level, can emerge with the right mix of luck and circumstances—as was the case with ASAP. Some of the necessary conditions are already widely evident in American localities. One ingredient, for example, is the presence of a group of residents who treasure the beauty and/or character and/or environmental vigor of an area, recognize that its expanding population is destroying what they value, believe their community has not yet reached the tipping point, and are willing to fight to protect their place from overbuilding.
“The probability of success for a new local sustainable-size outfit certainly improves if the community is experiencing rapid growth. For example, between 1992 and 2007—a period of only 15 years—Albemarle County lost 16 percent of its farmland (despite this, many farmers in our area remain dubious about government efforts to protect farmland). Even more important than the rate of growth is popular dismay about the impacts of the increased population. Voters’ attention is attracted to dramatically clogged traffic on local roads, or children forced to shift to new schools because of redistricting required by growth. And responsible citizens find it hard to ignore the strains on a locality’s budget, and the need for higher property taxes, as new residents demand new infrastructure. In the Charlottesville community probably no topic for letters to the editors is more prevalent than population growth and its effects.
“In some cases the impacts of growth can be critically important but not immediately apparent to most local residents. Construction of residential or commercial developments in previously open space, for example, is usually visible. But its vitally important effects on local ecosystem services, ultimately causing the insidious death of a thousand cuts, is unseen. One function of our OSPS research is to illustrate some of these non-obvious impacts—examining, for example, the decreasing ability of county forests to sequester carbon or buffer streams as residential developments expand.
“ASAP was lucky to be planted on more-or-less fertile ground; not all American communities will be as receptive. As an instance: though state law in Virginia certainly does not encourage municipalities to limit growth, neither does the law support population increases with such draconian regulations as the Growth Management Act of Oregon—which forces localities to provide infrastructure for projected population increases, virtually guaranteeing the increases. Virginia localities’ lack of growth management with teeth is usually blamed on pro-growth state regulations when, more realistically, it results from a lack of local foresight and political will.
“ASAP was also fortunate that in 2004, when we were founded, a critical mass of residents in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area seemed ready for a new organization devoted to advocating a strategy of ultimately stopping, not just slowing, local growth. In the 1990s a Sustainability Council, created by the regional Planning District Commission and composed of local citizens, developed a vision of a sustainable community; the Council’s 1998 report was approved by city and county leaders. One of its principles: “In a sustainable community, the members understand there are limits to growth.”
“A large portion of the residents here tend to be well educated, liberal, and environmentally sophisticated; the largest county employers are the University of Virginia and two first-rate hospitals. Our area’s in-migrants are far more likely to arrive from Boston or Long Island than from Haiti or Mexico; many have experienced the consequences of poorly managed growth elsewhere. The Charlottesville area tends to attract retirees (with time to contribute to volunteer work), a situation encouraged by the 2004 designation of the Charlottesville MSA as “The Best Place to Live in the USA” in publications by Bert Sperling (with whom we expect to be collaborating on research in our OSPS Project’s second phase).
“The municipal governments of Charlottesville and Albemarle County are sensitive to problems of growth. But—as in other American localities—virtually any proposal to constrain the pace or shape of expansion is opposed by the Home Builders Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Partnership for Economic Development, and other pro-growth and libertarian forces.
“Other places in America share many of the positive characteristics that allowed ASAP’s creation; the time may be right for other communities to establish groups to advocate for a local sustainable population size, not simply for “ smart growth” tactics. We in ASAP will do whatever we can to help.
“It’s not just wishful thinking to suggest that in thoughtful, forward-looking localities there’s a growing acknowledgement of environmental limits, and that there’s an evolution in community planning premised on achieving sustainability rather than growth. ASAP, and other organizations around the country that recognize the local limits of population growth, can be in the forefront of this essential paradigm shift.”
Jack Marshall, Ph.D., a retired cultural anthropologist, taught at the University of North Carolina and the University of Leiden (the Netherlands), directed social science research in family planning at WHO/Geneva, and, for the United Nations and other agencies, served as consultant for population policy and programs. He’s lived in some of the most densely populated areas in the world (North India, East Java, the Netherlands). Twenty years ago he and his wife moved to rural Albemarle County; he thinks he deserves it. Contact him at jackASAP@earthlink.net.
Marilyn Hempel may be contacted for further information: www.populationpress.org