Energy solution will require denser cities

For eight years most Jackson County cities have struggled with a regional planning process called Regional Problem Solving.

The goal of this process was to determine how to accommodate Jackson County population growth for the next 40 years. The final plan will be voted on soon by participating cities.

However, over the eight years, our energy situation changed so much that what might have seemed like a good plan no longer is. The plan does call for increased densities, but it doesn't do enough to encourage infill programs. This is important if we are to reduce reliance on single-passenger automobiles for transportation.

The need to infill will become increasingly obvious when gas prices approach $7 per gallon. Increased world demand will keep prices high even if the dollar regains strength. Meanwhile, most cities in the Regional Problem Solving process retain the same old post-World War Il suburban model of continually using more land than necessary to accomplish development goals instead of modifying city ordinances to implement resource-saving infill programs.

Medford, our largest city, is our most wasteful city in land use. In its 28 square miles Medford has approximately 70,000 people. This yields a density of only 2,500 people per square mile.

For public transportation to have viability without massive subsidies, a density of 5,000 people per square mile is needed. Yet Medford leaders before the recent gas price increases requested that large tracts of land be added to the city in Regional Problem Solving hearings.

This was in part because property owners adjacent to Medford wanted to increase the value of their land by having it zoned for development. But also, Medford decision makers traditionally display a disconnection between their habit of wasting land in development and what is needed in development to conserve resources. These same widespread wasteful habits have made U.S. cities the most sprawled on the planet.

Medford could add 28,000 more people In the existing city limits and still have a density of only 3,500 people per square mile. If Medford leaders chose a target density of 4,000 people per square mile, the city could add 44,000 people in the existing city limits, or if leaders determined to match Portland's 5,000 people per square mile, Medford could add 70,000 people to the existing city limits.

The result would be that more would get done in a smaller area, resulting in more walking, bicycling and public transportation ridership. Eventually the frequency and length of vehicle trips per person would decline, and we would retain more of our agricultural base.

Infill is a valid concept. It does not require high-rise buildings, but it does mean two-, three- and four-story buildings, more accessory dwelling units, more mixed-use projects, and parking for normal need, not maximum possible need.

The era of cheap energy is past, which means we must think more intricately. And it means that cities involved in the Regional Problem Solving process should prove that additional land is really necessary to accommodate projected growth.

But these cities with their current low densities have no case to add the amounts currently requested in the Regional Problem Solving plan. The amounts requested are not even justified without infill according to demographic projections.

City leaders must rethink the amount of land needed according to the actual demographic data in conjunction with projected densities after the implementation of aggressive infill programs. In doing this it would help if city leaders discarded the myth that a geographically larger city is somehow a better city.

Over the years representatives of 1000 Friends of Oregon and Friends of Jackson County testified numerous times in Regional Problem Solving meetings concerning the need for more frugal use of land in the Rogue Valley This testimony possibly had some small effect, but not enough. The forces of sprawl prevailed.

While we believe in the regional planning process, the process cannot result in a land grab at the expense of farming. Cities must commit to infill programs, and again, they must request only land justified by demographic projections. This has not yet happened.

Brent Thompson of Ashland is president of Friends of Jackson County.

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