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Is '50s model of Americana now impractical for West?

If you leave it to Beaver, everyone living in the West would have single-family homes on quarter-acre or bigger lots, all in tree-lined subdivisions with plenty of cul-de-sacs and two-car garages.

White-picket fences optional.But cities in the West - including the Salt Lake metro area - are growing so rapidly that the traditional 1950s model of Americana may no longer be practical, say some growth experts participating in a growth summit recently in Colorado Springs sponsored by the Center for the New West.

Instead, the limited amount of space available for development will inevitably mean higher-density housing projects, toll roads that recover the actual infrastructure and environmental costs of commuting, and restrictions on the wide-open access to which Westerners are so accustomed.

Those concepts may be anathema to traditional Westerners, but to those living in rapidly sprawling urban areas, a new paradigm is emerging - one based on conservation of resources, preservation of quality of life and creative development that acknowledges the realities of limited space, said Will Fleissig, former planner for Boulder, Colo., and now a private consultant.

All that is needed is "leaders who have the political will" to implement new ideas. "We can have all the great analysis and design, but without leadership, it won't go anywhere," Fleissig said.

Fleissig is promoting what is commonly called the "new urbanism," a community design model that makes more efficient use of limited space by building smaller homes closer together, mixing low-income and moderate-income housing together, surrounding the developments with green space, limiting parking in favor of access to mass transit, and promoting the development of community business centers that people can reach by walking.

Fleissig cited studies that indicate 21 percent of the urban populations support the concepts of new urbanism, while 48 percent were interested in the concept but not yet to the point of moving to such a development.

He also maintained that about 26 percent of urban populations are made up of what he described as "cultural creatives" - people who are environmentally active, self-employed, retired, single and/or practice alternative lifestyles. And these people are typically more willing to accept higher densities, smaller homes and smaller yards. And they are willing to use mass transit.

However, restrictive zoning laws, as well as widespread public sentiment against high-density housing, has made it difficult for developers to get approval for such projects. "The formulaic approach (by city zoning officers) makes it difficult to do anything creative," he said.

Which means implementing the new urbanism will require leaders to make politically unpopular decisions, he added.

That didn't set particularly well with Phil Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, who said people get nervous whenever "philosopher kings" start talking about where or how people should be living. "I like a yard, and I don't want some pointy-head intellectual telling me I can't have one," he said.

But on one key point, Burgess agreed with Fleissig. Restrictive city and county laws have refused to allow the marketplace to give people options - like those envisioned in the new urbanism - on where or how they live. If there really is a market of "cultural creatives" who want high-density housing in commercially self-contained urban neighborhoods, then that free-market option should be available, he said.

Larry Arnn, a constitutional scholar with the Claremont Institute in California, is also a firm believer that a free marketplace can be used to accommodate - and even limit - growth.

One way to discourage urban sprawl is to implement a toll system where those who use the roads more pay more. And those costs must accurately reflect the real construction and maintenance costs, as well as air pollution costs.

If the real costs of commuting were calculated, people would be less likely to choose homes in outlying areas. "Teach people the costs, and the marketplace will work," Arnn said. "The local people will decide what is best for them, and they will choose wisely."

Arnn also believes there has been a lot of unnecessary hand-wringing over congested roads. Despite the traffic jams, Arnn argues the highways are operating way under capacity.

His solution to congestion? Charge people for using the roads. And charge them more during peak hours than during off-hours. If the cost is judged accurately, motorists will no longer be willing to drive alone in their cars during rush hour. Rather, there will be an economic incentive to car pool and van pool and commute during non-peak hours.

He also argued that the affordable housing problem could be alleviated through simple housing deregulation. In particular, he says cities should get rid of their restrictions against building apartments over garages or building a cottage in the backyard.

Arnn said most growth problems can be remedied through free-market economic strategies. If actual costs for services are imposed, people will make decisions based on economic realities.

"If you want pleasant communities, then you think of ways to empower people to make decisions for themselves," he said.

The Center for the New West is a nonprofit research group that is fostering broad-ranging discussions on growth-related problems throughout the West. The growth policies of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who is on the center's board of directors, have been influenced by the center's research.