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A Better Way to Grow

March 22, 2003

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the Democratic congressman from Oregon, came through Los Angeles recently to preach the philosophy of livability, also known as smart growth. So-called livable cities try to preserve open space and ease traffic congestion by promoting light rail and clustering housing and businesses around transit stops. If Blumenauer's hometown of Portland invented the movement two decades ago, auto-centric, sprawling Southern California unintentionally provided the motivation.

Now a regional planning agency, inspired by Blumenauer and other livability prophets, wants to see whether the model for dumb growth can remake itself. In an undertaking that is either quixotic or merely daunting, the Southern California Assn. of Governments is inviting the region's 17 million residents, six counties and 186 cities to take part in a series of workshops, starting Friday. The goal: come up with a plan for a Southern California that by 2030 is expected to grow by 6 million people -- the equivalent of almost two Oregons.

The task the association has set for itself is formidable, even aside from the logistics of soliciting public input from a public this huge. This is the land of secession movements, not mergers, where the good of the community runs a distant second to the mantra of "not in my backyard."

Southern Californians also shun cookie-cutter solutions. Where swimming pools and barbecues are king, there is strong opposition to such "smart growth" hallmarks as apartments and mass transit.

There is a market here for a denser kind of development, however, be it in a Latino culture that enjoys a pedestrian-oriented, plaza setting or among aging baby boomers ready to give up yardwork. Giving those who want a more urban lifestyle that choice would help keep the suburbs and what's left of the hills and fields that surround them from being overrun.

But the biggest obstacle to planning will be resistance to the very idea of more growth in a region that in 30 explosive years has seen orange groves and ranches give way to locked freeways and jammed schools. Many Southern Californians have come to equate planning for growth with promoting it. They would seal the state's borders if they could, never mind that two-thirds of the projected increase will come from births, not immigration.

There is no going back to that old, idyllic California. Call them idealists or call them realists, Southern California livability advocates see planning regionally as the way to make a new California that works better than today's.

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To Take Action: The first in a series of public workshops will be held Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles Convention Center. To register or for more information, call (800) 337-4819 or visit the Southern California Compass Web site, www.socal compass.org.

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