Featured Stories

Difficult trade-offs ahead for land-use planners

by: ,

Every day that goes by pushes Washington County, the region and the state of Oregon closer to making tougher and tougher choices about how to accommodate the growth that is projected to occur over the next 25 to 30 years.

Some of those choices will be trade-offs - decisions that concede something to achieve an outcome.

Research on pollution from traffic by a Portland State University professor illustrates such a potential trade-off.

Another possible trade-off follows recommendations by environmental interests that suggest the region first protect critical natural areas and wildlife habitat when planning density and urban growth boundary expansions. The trade-off would be that the environmental protection would be deemed more primary than protecting farmland in UGB expansion for housing or jobs.

These examples are not just theoretical or wonkish 'planner-speak.'

The PSU research tracks studies conducted by the state Department of Environmental Quality that show the presence of much higher levels of pollution - and accompanying potential health risks - in neighborhoods bordering Portland-area freeways and major highways. These are the same places where regional land-use policies are placing higher housing densities.

Let's all be clear. These planning efforts are attempts to limit urban sprawl and minimize impacts on farm and forestlands on the fringes of the region. Requiring higher densities also can reduce reliance on cars by making walking and transit more desirable. We understand that policies promoting higher densities certainly are not an effort to damage the health of local residents.

Risks must be considered

But while we understand the intent of planning for future growth by promoting higher urban densities, we applaud PSU Associate Professor Linda George for being willing to ask important questions. Among them: Should land-use policies require higher densities where pollution is the worst? And if so, then what will the region do to reduce pollution to offset ill health effects?

Unfortunately, such questions presently are not among the considerations that Metro, Portland or other local jurisdictions ponder as they plan for the future.

But more pollution and a higher chance of health risks - as well as whether we protect nature and wildlife first and farmland second - should be among the trade-offs recognized and measured going forward. The reality is that Oregon is expected to grow by nearly 2 million more residents by 2040 - almost half of whom state officials project will reside in three counties: Multnomah (180,000 new residents), Washington (470,000 new residents) and Clackamas (280,000 new residents).

Planning for this high-growth future already is under way. The metro area is in the midst of completing its 'New Look at Regional Choices' - an update of the 2040 growth-management plan put together by Metro in the mid- and late 1990s.

Meanwhile, the state's Big Look land-use reform task force is working to develop proposed land-use planning considerations to take before the public this summer. The idea is for the task force to be ready to present the 2009 Oregon Legislature with a series of recommendations to reform state land-use planning.

Region has difficult choices

Whether it's the New Look or the Big Look - or simply where an individual Portland-area resident chooses to live - difficult public policy trade-offs await.

That's why we favor everyday planning and major land-use reform processes that are very transparent and that fully examine the actual trade-offs - and not just the perceived benefits of land decisions.