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Growth Reflections

August 23, 1987

Several recent articles on growth in San Diego prompt a few reflections, one from the past, and two for the future.

First, concerns about growth are not new. This is the 16th anniversary of the first Sierra Club slow-growth movement, a short-lived effort we called "Lesser San Diego" (admittedly stolen from L.A. columnist Art Seidenbaum's tongue-in-cheek "Lesser Los Angeles"). It was an idea clearly ahead of its time and received almost no community response, even though the handwriting was already on the wall. (Just four years later, Mayor Pete Wilson would send off a letter to growth consultant Robert Freilich).

Second, hopefully the City Council members do not view the managed-growth issue as just a temporary political hot potato that gridlock on Interstate 805 has forced on them. The real issue behind the current slow-growth groundswell is the concept of the "carrying capacity" of the San Diego region: how many more people will it hold before the infrastructure is irredeemably over-committed and we have, indeed, "become like Los Angeles?"

Some aspects of the region seem already to exceed its carrying capacity: certain air quality standards are termed unattainable, our freeways are bogged down, toxics are now our neighbors on both land and water, and we seem to have nowhere to put either garbage or sewage sludge. All these issues are closely interrelated with growth management, and none of them is about to go away.

Third, the council is only addressing growth rates. What about San Diego's ultimate steady-state population? We will not grow forever; at some point all developable land will have been put to the bulldozer, and densification will be increasingly resisted. At SDSU I refer to this condition as the "mature city." Los Angeles has topped out at about 3 million residents; San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle and Denver have all dropped back a bit from their population highs. How does a city continue to assure its residents a continued high "quality of life" under conditions of no population growth and an aging infrastructure? It's not too early to start thinking about this.

Considerations such as the above represent some of the more critical long-term implications of growth management, but you rarely hear them being discussed at City Hall or on the local editorial pages. They should be. Our planning should be predictive rather than reactive.

Those of us who are involved with Citizens for Limited Growth are hopeful we can encourage the council to plan the city's 21st-Century development on the basis of the carrying capacity of the region and the realities of its resource base, rather than on easier and politically safer short-term considerations.


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