DENVER — Much to the chagrin of land-use planners, rugged individualism lives on in the Great American West. And this hallmark causes natives and transplants alike to resist planning efforts, according to Patricia Nelson Limerick, a University of Colorado-Boulder Western historian and director of the Center of the American West.
Limerick was one of hundreds of speakers booked for the recent 2003 American Planning Association’s national conference at the Colorado Convention Center.
Nearly 5,000 attendees flocked to the venue to get information and inspiration in every conceivable planning niche.
The schedule listed everything from planning for disaster-resistant communities to building light rail to reconsidering the urban/rural divide within Col-
orado’s gay community.
However, Limerick’s presentation with William Travis, a CU associate professor of geography and co-worker at the Center of the American West, drew a packed crowed of 300 as they discussed “Development in the Rocky Mountain West.”
Their interpretations of regional development patterns in light of historic, economic and demographic forces all pointed to future growth — but not with the same economic ups and downs of yesteryear.
Instead, today’s diversity would enable steady growth that allows for planning, Limerick said. But better planning, she explained, would need to begin with transforming what she termed the “allergic reaction” many Westerners exhibit when faced with the subject.
To demonstrate that Colorado needs to become more supportive of the planning process, she pointed out that the state has been ranked 36th in its capacity to achieve sustainable development through “green” planning. Other interior Western states such as New Mexico and Wyoming ranked 48th and 49th respectively.
“Not to be too alarmist, but if we don’t find a treatment for the powerful Western allergy to planning, we are all in big trouble,” Limerick explained. “But putting this more positively, the design and deployment of the metaphorical Sudafed and Benadryl, to reduce the historically long-lived, regional allergy to planning would do us all — humans, carnivores, ungulates, amphibians, arthropods, grasses, trees, landscapes and atmosphere — measurable and lasting good.”
Travis agreed with Limerick that the Western economy’s boom/bust threat has been largely subverted by the population’s conversion to less risky opportunities.
“Who’s buying ranches in the West? It’s not ranchers. It doesn’t pencil out. You can’t buy a ranch for ranching,” he said. Instead, he said the land was and would continue to be snapped up for residential and other commercial ventures — despite worries about water being a hard limitation.
“In my view, water is not an issue in the foreseeable development of the West ... even though you might want it to be,” Travis said.
As town administrator and planner of Mead, a city that grew from 450 people in 1990 to approximately 2,100 this year, Michael Friesen said that Travis’ water-related comments initially surprised him.
“But we do have a lot of developers looking at building new subdivisions in Mead, and I think that is an indicator that the drought and the water pains over the last two years are not bad enough to stop growth,” Friesen explained. “People are still allergic to planning around here. That’s mainly because of that old West mindset of limited government intervention.
“But if we don’t do better planning, we’re going to have a major decline in our quality of life.”
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244 Ext. 224 or by e-mail at