In this continuing series, Editor Marilyn Hempel of www.populationpress.org
entertained “Organizing for a Sustainable
Population at the Local Level, by
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 “
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
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
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
“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.
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
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
smart growth” accommodations fail to halt a relentless inflow of
new residents; the social, economic, and environmental impacts are merely
“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
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
“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
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,
Netherlands). Twenty years ago he and his wife moved to rural Albemarle
County; he thinks he deserves it. Contact him at jackASAP@earthlink.net.