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Regionwide Planning Will Make the Problems Worse
by Albert A. Bartlett


What a shock it was to read the editorial of my hometown newspaper (the Boulder Daily Camera of May 5, 1996 ) and to find there that the paper is advocating a course of action in regard to planning which will make problems worse and which will result in the dilution and destruction of democracy in Boulder County and in the Front Range area of Colorado.

The editorial that conveyed this terrible message carried the title, "Regionwide Planning Needed."  The editorial noted that:

When you realize that Boulder County is one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation, when you regularly encounter traffic-clogged streets, when you see exploding housing prices driving out even the middle class, when you see the shortsighted results of hit-and-run zoning changes, when you watch helplessly as huge land grabs are made through bitter municipal annexation wars, then you know it's time for sensible planning and action at the regional level.

This compact quotation neatly identifies the cause of the problems (Boulder County is "one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation" ), the problems ( "traffic-clogged streets," etc. ), and the Camera's "solution" ("planning and action at the regional level"). 

Population growth is causing all the enumerated problems but, as I will demonstrate, regional planning is not a "solution" because it will enlarge the problems and make them all worse.

Regional Planning

Consider the following two facts:

1) Regional planning does not address the cause of the problems that was correctly identified in the editorial, i.e. population growth.  A fundamental law of nature is, "You can't solve a problem if you ignore its cause."  So no matter how much planning is done, none of the problems will be solved if the population growth is allowed to continue in the county.  Aspirin is not a solution for cancer, although it may make the patient more comfortable.

2) At a more fundamental level, we must recognize that the main point of planning is to "solve" problems that arise from crowding.  Thus planning is designed to help accommodate larger populations.  To see how this works, let's imagine that the problem is traffic congestion and that regional planning calls for, and ultimately produces, a large expansion of the regional highway system.  This will encourage and facilitate further population growth so that soon the added new population will overwhelm and clog the expanded regional highway system. (Bartlett, 1969, 1973.) The taxpayers will have paid for the planning, they will have paid for the expanded highways, and in return they will get traffic congestion on an enlarged regional scale.

Thus, population growth forces us to go to regional planning instead of local planning.  This enlarges the problem so that local congestion becomes transformed into regional congestion, and nothing is solved: indeed, the problems of congestion are made worse.

The feedback is positive.  Efforts that are made to use regional planning to "solve" local problems cause the local problems to grow to be regional problems.

Here's how it works:

  1. Things that impede population growth are regarded as problems that must be solved.
  2. It follows then that solving these problems aids and facilitates population growth.

One needs to remember Eric Sevareid's Law: The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid, 1970.) 

Indeed, one can recognize a fundamental Law of Planning:

Planning in a community or region can provide long-term solutions to community or regional problems only if the planning causes, or is accompanied by, a complete cessation of population growth in the community or region.

Regional Planning Dilutes and Ultimately Defeats Democracy

What does regional planning do to democracy?  In 1950 the population of the City of Boulder was 20,000.  So when speaking to a member of the City Council in 1950, a citizen of Boulder was one voice in 20,000.  In 1998 the population of Boulder is approximately five times larger, so one citizen of Boulder in 1997 is one voice in 100,000.  Population growth in Boulder since 1950 has diluted democracy in Boulder by a factor of five! 

This is bad enough.  But look what will happen if we turn to regional planning as we seek democratic "solutions" to the problems.  If there are 100,000 people in the "region," then, as seen by the individual citizen, regional planning will further dilute democracy by another factor of three.  If the "region" includes the metropolitan Denver counties with perhaps 2.5 million population, one citizen of Boulder will be reduced to being only one voice in 2.5 million!  Then, to make things even worse, if regional planning is "successful", it will hasten the population growth in the region to 3, 4, or even 5 million, with the corresponding further destruction of democracy. 

For the individual, democracy is inversely proportional to the size of the participating population.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Isaac Asimov made a very profound observation:

Democracy cannot survive overpopulation.  Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation.  Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation.  As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears.  It does not matter if someone dies.  The more people there are, the less one person matters. (Moyers, 1980.)

The Remote High Priests of Regional Planning

When regional planning is done, the regional planners are almost impossibly remote from the average citizen.  The planners can become a priesthood which has access to the "truth" as is determined by pliable computer models and by the planners' trusted advisers, who generally are the rich and influential promoters.  In their centrally isolated office suites, the regional planners are so remote, and the democratic processes are so dilute, that the regional planners can largely ignore individual citizens and citizens' groups. With all their "expertise,"  they can override the objections of citizens and recommend the destruction of neighborhoods by putting in mega-malls, industrial centers, beltways, and giant tourist attractions where ever their regional computer models or their

influential advisors indicate would be "best for the region."  Planners almost never question the need for these large intrusive facilities:  if promoters want to put them in, planning seems to consist solely of finding the location that is "best for the region," independent of the wishes of the people of the region.  In most cases, "best" means "least bad." 

To facilitate these developments the regional planners can always be counted on to produce environmental impact statements that assert with great authority that the impact of each proposed new development on traffic, air and water quality, and on the quality of life, will be "minimal."

It is difficult for the average citizen to counter arguments that are produced by distant and intimidating high priests who are emboldened by their advanced degrees and are masters of their obedient computer models. Through the use of regional planning, democracy is thus replaced by an oligarchy.

An Example

In 1995 I heard a talk by one of these regional planners for a major metropolitan region in a western state.  He had the best professional credentials. His central professional interactions were apparently not with people, but with promoters, planners, statistics and computer models. He was thoroughly insulated from any constituency of ordinary citizens, and when he had to appear before citizens, he made an attempt to sound elevated, erudite, and learned.  He showed computer-generated graphs of the projected population growth of the region.  With regard to these graphs, he used the term "optimistic" to describe the steeply rising curve of the "rapid- growth scenario" and the term "pessimistic" to describe the less rapidly rising curve of the "slow-growth scenario."  The growth lines on his graphs went steadily upward all the way to the right edge of the graphs.   Though planners are supposed to think about the future, he gave no sign of having thought about what would happen in the years to the right of the right end of his graphs.  Would the growth continue forever, or would it sometime stop?  (Bartlett, 1978.)   What might cause the growth to stop?  Will the growth produce better lives for the people of the community whose "commons" are being so eagerly destroyed by the influential few who do thereby benefit? 

I am sure that if this planner felt that the greater good of the region was served by bisecting a neighborhood with a new concrete freeway, he would have no qualms about destroying the neighborhood by installing the planners' equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

Unfortunately, the planner did not stay to hear the talks that followed his.  These talks told of the severe regional problems with the underfunded school systems, the environmental deterioration, the congestion, the air pollution, and the predictable problems with water supply and waste disposal, which are all the direct result of past growth and which were not currently being adequately addressed even though continued population growth in the area was constantly being stimulated.

Smart Growth

We hear a lot today about "smart growth," as though "smart growth" was the magic key to the achievement of sustainability.  A central ingredient in "smart growth" is regional planning; regional planning encourages more population growth, and population growth is unsustainable.  (Bartlett, 1994, 1998.)  It is thus clear that "smart growth" can't solve the problems. 

"Smart growth" destroys the environment. 

"Dumb growth" destroys the environment. 

The only difference is that "smart growth" destroys the environment with good taste. 

That in itself is a worthwhile goal, but one is still destroying the environment.  It's like booking passage on the Titanic.  If you are dumb, you go steerage.  If you are "smart" you go first class.  But either way, the result is the same.  

It was reported that Ted Turner recently said, "I maintain there is no such thing as smart growth.   We are the one species that is out of control in its growth."  (Turner, 1998.)

Smart growth is a means of making unsustainability as pleasant as possible.


One can guess that regional planning made Los Angeles what it is today.  Regional planning in the Front Range area will do for Colorado what it did for Southern California.  Apparently this is what the Camera really wants, for in supporting the population growth that destroys the commons, the Camera will increase its circulation numbers.  Or does the Camera really believe we in Colorado will do things differently from the way they have been done in Southern California?

The Flatirons outside of Boulder, Colo.
A collaborative effort between the City of Boulder and County of Boulder
preserves adjacent mountain parks for the entire region's benefit.
Photo courtesy of S. Buntin.

Disraeli, Bartlett, and Regional Planning:  A Rejoinder
by Thomas A. Clark

British Prime Minister Disraeli once said of Gladstone, his rival, "He had but one idea in his life, and it was wrong."  Were this true of my friend Al Bartlett, retired physics professor, this would be an exceedingly short essay.

But Al has been right on many things.  Certainly, population growth is over-burdening our finite planet.  We can take little comfort in the fact that fertility rates have fallen dramatically in recent years relative to mortality rates in much of the more developed world.  The global aggregate is still increasing save for the occasional astronaut bent on out-migration on a rather grand scale.   It=s only when Al concludes that regional planning is anti-democratic and an active agent in promoting population growth by increasing regional capacities for accommodating growth that he seems to stray from the reasonable course that is his normal path to insight.  His take on this subject derives from a sadly mistaken characterization of regional planning itself.  Were his characterization accurate, then his critique might hold water, but the characterization is way off base so his conclusions are a sitting duck.   I intend to take deadly aim at his basic suppositions.

The fundamental reality is that Al, I and everyone else have interests that reach beyond the local, as they are ensconced within municipal boundaries.   "Region" in "regional planning" denotes the locality and the space beyond.  Built-up urban regions are afflicted by extreme political fragmentation.  As a result many matters yield consequences—"externalities"— that spillover political boundaries.   These externalities, in the parlance of economics, are "unpriced side-effects."  That is, they are consequences, both good and bad, that arise from actions in one place that affect actors and interests in other places.  Because they are unpriced, there is less appreciation for their content or magnitude and no market-driven yardstick with which to gauge remedial compensation or to provoke mitigation in advance of action itself.   Spillovers crossing political boundaries are particularly inimical since those who are harmed by the actions of persons or governments in other jurisdictions have no political recourse.  And if the offending municipality deigned not to consult with its neighbors prior to the offense, the recipe for political action is decidedly undemocratic.

Our political geography has been overtaken by the functional domain of regional impacts arising from "local" decisions.  Much of the effort to craft new entities with which to improve planning in metro regions is an effort to overcome the illogic of the multitude of irrational political boundaries that arose as late 19th and early 20th Century suburbanization gave way to gross political fragmentation.  This process owed much to the need to extend public services to outlying areas.  But this process was driven as well by the realization that the establishment of free-standing suburbs would allow their residents to escape the fiscal burdens of central cities while controlling residential access through land use regulation.  Regional planning is largely about establishing domains for decision-making that are congruent with the domain of these spillover externalities.

This brings me to my first major point.  Al Bartlett is simply wrong to assert that regional planning is or invariably has to be undemocratic.  Regional planning, in fact, is an agent for the extension of democracy to the interlocal domain over which the consequences of local actions are often transacted.  The fact is, we all carry dual if not multiple citizenships.  We are citizens of our localities, the regions in which they are situated, states, the nation, world regions and so on.  What has been lacking is an effective vehicle for regional participation, and this, I conclude, is the result of there being little precedent for governance at the scale of metropolitan and substate rural regional scales. 

Professor Bartlett also asserts that regional planning inflates regional capacities and that these will only increase population.   What he means is that every increment of increase in infrastructural, service and land capacity will attract more residents to the area.  The increase of which he speaks, that is, is driven mainly by migration in the first instance, though a positive net migration will of course yield natural increase in subsequent years.  This I accept, though migration is a zero-sum game at the onset, so it has no bearing whatsoever on the global population which is the only aggregate that really counts, given the world's improving capacity to move capital, labor and natural resources around quite freely.  So one region's gain is another's loss, and so it goes.  Only to the extent that migration ends up placing people in places where they might eventually multiply less or more rapidly can it be said that migration affects the global aggregate itself.

Where his argument crashes is in the assertion that regional planning, more than local intra-municipal planning, builds capacities and conditions that attract growth to one area from another via migration.  Localities as much as regions achieve this end.  Localities, by dint of good planning often make themselves more attractive to growth, even absent any regional involvement.  Boulder, Colorado, where Al Bartlett and I both reside, moreover, has done much to preserve its mountain backdrop and maintain surrounding open space.  In fact, Al had a lot to do with this.  And the city has done quite a bit to foster bike and pedestrian paths within its borders.  While city and county open space acquisitions of easements and in fee simple did indeed reduce the supply of space for development, they also made the place more attractive.  So more demand chases a reduced supply of land yielding a major affordability crisis. But can we really blame local planning for this outcome, and should we deliberately plan badly so as to reduce rates of growth?  I think not.

Al further asserts that regional planning builds or enables "big" infrastructures, both public and private, like airports, railroads, regional commercial malls, multi-lane highways and so on.  But these entities and others such as water supply and waste management are intrinsically regional in character and are rightly the responsibility of regional decision-making.  It is their nature to be in a sense "singular" and "large," and thus region-spanning.  No, Professor Bartlett might argue that we can do without these big things, and that many smaller things may be able to do the work of fewer bigger things, but I suggest to you that "smaller" often carries with it inefficiencies yielding higher unit prices, and that most citizens would seem to favor higher efficiencies, lower prices, and the greater ease of movement that comes from the presence of many kinds of region-serving infrastructures.   Very few of us these days live our lives within the close confines of municipal boundaries.  It is regional-serving infrastructure that enables Colorado=s Front Range, for example, to tap water supplies at greater distances, move goods and commuters with at least marginal efficiencies between Front Range cities, and achieve the efficiencies of scale that have produced Denver's award-winning regional theater.  Can we blame regional planning for addressing regional issues?  Hardly!  If regional issues are to be faced and region-serving infrastructures are to be built, then it is regional—that is, inter-local—planning's task to deliver the goods.

Where Professor Bartlett is correct is in his observation that regional planning often seems to lack adequate participatory vehicles.  And this is indeed of concern.  One solution, of course, is for neighbors to negotiate regional solutions and plans.  In New Jersey each neighboring municipality signs off on its neighbors' plans.  This is called "cross-acceptance" and it's a good idea.  There's an ethical construct that no reasonable person can refute.  Another is to create single or multi-purpose regional governing or service-delivery entities and charge them with the task of legitimating their activities through regional political participation.   This is a good idea, too.  And simply because we've been slow to evolve such participatory vehicles doesn't mean they are beyond our reach.  The bottom line is that regional solutions are often required, so we need to create the means for shaping these while involving the relevant publics. 

In the end, we need to see regional planning as a necessary complement to local planning.  Through regional participation, localities gain extra-territorial influence over neighbor's actions that produce consequences, both good and bad, on local turf.  It's a bargain that most seem willing to strike.  Allow me to have a say in the decisions of neighbors that affect me, and I'll return the favor to them, giving them a say in decisions I may take that affect them.   Seems to me it's a Biblical precept that modern society can't do without.


Albert A. Bartlett is an Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Professor Bartlett lectures regularly to a wide variety of audiences from coast to coast on the topic "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy."  In 29 years he has given this lecture over 1280 times.  A one-hour videotape of this lecture is available from the Department of Information Technology Services, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Thomas A. Clark is Professor and Chair of the Department of Planning and Design in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado at Denver.  Dr. Clark is a specialist in urban economic development and regional land policy.  He has published five books and monographs, numerous journal articles, and many professional reports that address economic development, urban labor markets, minority suburbanization, regional and statewide growth management, small business development, environmental impact analysis, metropolitan spatial options, and national nonmetropolitan economic futures.  Dr. Clark's current work examines the emergence of a minority middle class in the nation's largest central cities, capital flows via markets for labor and housing into lower income neighborhoods, and the role of state investment in higher education in the generation of advanced skills and their impact on state economic development.   He is now exploring the fate of the West's most empty spaces. With the Colorado Chapter of the American Planning Association and other organizations, he helped spearhead the reform of regional land use planning in Colorado. He also served for several years on the Denver Regional Council of Governments' Vision 20/20 Taskforce and its Transportation Policy Committee.  He has advised CHFA, CDOT, various municipalities and other entities in Colorado, as well as Governor Roy Romer regarding Colorado's "Smart Growth" initiative.

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Denver Regional Council of Governments

DRCOG's Metro Vision 2020

City of Boulder

County of Boulder

State of Colorado

Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse



for Albert A. Bartlett

Bartlett, A.A.  "The Highway Explosion," Civil Engineering, December 1969, Pgs. 71-72.

Bartlett, A.A. "The Highway Explosion," Environment, Vol. 15, April 1973, Pgs. 43-44.

Bartlett, A.A. "Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis,"   American Journal of Physics, Vol. 46, September 1978, Pgs. 876-888.

Bartlett, A.A. "Reflections on  Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment," Population and Environment, Vol. 16, September 1994, Pgs. 5-35.

Bartlett, A.A. "Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment -   Revisited," Renewable Resources Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4, Winter 1997-1998, Pgs. 6-23.

Moyers, Bill.  1980.  A World of Ideas, Doubleday, New York City, Pg. 276.

Sevareid, E. CBS News, December 29, 1970, quoted in T.L. Martin, Malice in Blunderland, (McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York City, 1973)

Turner, Ted.  Quoted in Atlanta Journal-Constitution , September 12, 1998.



Denver, Colorado as an Example of Unconstrained Suburban Growth

"Smart growth," said then-Colorado Governor Roy Romer, "is about developing visions for the future of communities, regions and the state and developing strategies to accomplish these visions."  And the challenge is certainly real, especially in the metropolitan Denver region.  But Denver's growth—while perhaps economically strategic for developers—has been anything but strategic for the entire region.  Huge master planned communities like Highlands Ranch in the south and Rock Creek to the northwest contribute to residential sprawl, quickly replacing what was once agricultural land and High Plains brush with house after identical house, Kentucky bluegrass lawns, and overly wide streets that mandate use of the automobile.  Smaller, piecemeal residential developments do the same, and large business parks and "big box" retail round out the threesome of contemporary suburban development.

The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) estimates that another 750,000 people will move into the metro area by the year 2020.  That would bring the population to 2,800,000, up from just 1,000,000 in 1960.  Such population growth is almost expected given Denver's proximity to the mountains, the new Denver International Airport, the temperate climate, and a renewed Lower Downtown and Central Platte Valley.  The "hows" and "wheres" of that growth are cause for the greatest concern.

DRCOG, in its Metro Vision 2020 framework, identified four possible alternatives for future development:  compact, corridor, satellite, and dispersed.  Dispersed development is growth under current local and regional trends and policies.  In this scenario, low-density residential development continues on the edges of existing suburban areas, adding an additional 350 square miles of urban area to the existing 530, which itself is up from 300 in 1970.  Yet if the metro area cities and counties were to actually build out their current comprehensive plans for growth, the urbanized area would swell to 1,150 square miles, an area larger than the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, and Long Beach, California, combined.

Population growth in select Denver suburbs, 1950 to 1990:

   1950 - 11,421
   1970 - 74,974
   1990 - 222,110

1950 - 19,999
   1970 - 66,780
   1990 - 83,312

   1950 - 176
   1970 - 7,621
   1990 - 24,636

Castle Rock
   1950 - 741
   1970 - 1,531
   1990 - 8,708

   1950 - 5,238
   1970 - 9,817
   1990 - 12,363

   1950 - 3,932
   1970 - 92,787
   1990 - 126,481

   1950 - 2,322
   1970 - 19,432
   1990 - 74,623

Source: "Suburbs and Suburban Sprawl," Community Redeveloped:  Redeveloping Suburban Downtowns for a Sustainable Future by Simmons B. Buntin, May 1997.  Urban and Regional Planning Program, University of Colorado at Denver.


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