Growth interrupted


In 2003-2004, when Las Vegas was the nation's fastest-growing metro area, there was some chatter in the community about slowing things down a bit. The place was growing like a weed after a downpour, and some folks were weary of the chaos.

The small handful of people who publicly espoused this view apparently made the growth-addicted power brokers nervous. The Southern Nevada Water Authority commissioned a study to project what would happen to the local economy if growth stopped.

Not if growth slowed down, mind you, but if it stopped. This was a clever political ploy. By focusing on the most extreme scenario, the consequences undoubtedly would look the most severe.

The study, prepared by Hobbs, Ong & Associates and Applied Analysis, was released in February 2004. Titled "The Impact of a Growth Interruption in Southern Nevada," it is 642 pages long, filling a giant three-ring binder with charts, citations and text. Nobody with an ounce of sanity would read the whole thing. Fortunately, the executive summary is a tidy 13 pages.

The upshot? Stopping growth in Las Vegas would be cataclysmic! "An interruption in growth, particularly a swift or severe interruption, would have significant negative economic, fiscal and social consequences," the study says.

That the study came to this conclusion was not surprising, nor was it necessarily wrong. It's pretty easy to see that suddenly stopping growth in a community whose economy is so dependent on growth will lead to some "significant negative" consequences.

The study's tone was measured, not hysterical, and its conclusions were based on real data, even if not all the relevant issues were addressed. But the study nonetheless served its intended purpose: It scared the hell out of public officials and citizens alike who were flirting with joining the slow-growth crowd.

The nascent slow-growth movement all but disappeared. And with real estate prices skyrocketing, lots of people who previously ignored such things couldn't stop talking about how their homes had doubled in value. The idea of controlling growth took a back seat to the quest for equity.

We know the next chapter of the story. The housing market collapsed, the nation fell into a deep recession and some of the fears outlined in the water authority's study have come true.

But guess what? The sky hasn't fallen. Times are tough for some people and businesses, but Las Vegas has not dried up and blown away. Most of us are still here, working, driving, consuming, whatever. We still have traffic jams, and we still have to wait for a table in a restaurant on Friday night.

The apocalyptic fear-mongering that surrounded the "growth interruption" study simply has not proved to be valid. The "growth disruption" has resulted in a net population decrease over the past year -- the first time this has happened in a very long time. But consider: Is this entirely a bad thing?

Some urban theorists see city shrinkage in a positive light. Dozens of cities in the United States and Europe have been shrinking in recent decades. Knute Berger, writing for Crosscut, an online newspaper in Seattle, reported recently on this burgeoning field of study.

There are a few possible responses to a shrinking city. One is to find ways to repopulate it. Environmentally speaking, using existing land and housing is a better option than continuing to sprawl into the hinterlands.

Another option is to take advantage of the shrinkage to redo parts of a city, to fix problems created during periods of rapid, largely unplanned growth. This might involve bulldozers taking out certain neighborhoods so they can be rebuilt in a better way or to improve traffic patterns. If a city doesn't have to cope with growth pressures, it can focus on making the place more livable and sustainable. You've heard of smart growth; this is smart decline.

As for Las Vegas, I've often pondered what would be the ideal size for this metro area. We now stand at just under 2 million people. Before the housing collapse and recession, demographers produced charts showing the Las Vegas area ballooning to 3.5 million people in just a few decades.

In light of recent events, it likely will take Las Vegas longer to reach that figure than previously thought. But a more important question is: Do we really want 3.5 million people -- ever?

Considering all the issues, from water availability and transportation to education and ecological effects, Las Vegas might be better off topping out at, say, 2.5 million people. We could abandon the rural water grab, reduce sprawl and focus on quality of life, rather than build, build, build.

We're still in the early stages of this recession, so the full impact on Las Vegas is not yet clear. But it's fair to say the city has shown a notable resilience so far. We're still plugging away. The growth will resume at some point, but let's conquer our addiction to it. We don't need 8,000 newcomers a month to survive.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/geoffschumacher.

 

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