Friday, March 09, 2007

The good, the bad and the ugly

"The long-standing preoccupation with automobiles has degraded our communities to such a degree - physically and otherwise - that our destinations are no longer places worth reaching."
World Watch Institute
With a nod towards my upcoming post on the Portland region's successes and failures, it's worth noting that sprawl isn't just a phenomenon of large urban areas. I was reminded of this reality during a trip this week to the Oregon coast south of Lincoln City.

It's also worth noting, by way of introducing this topic, that white settlers here in the west had grandiose visions of ever-expanding "cities" everywhere. Lincoln "City" is a good example, with a current population of just 7,849. (Tiny Mill City, Oregon, with 1,546 souls, and Canyon City with 670, are even better.) Less than 90 miles from Portland, Lincoln City has some major advantages that make it a popular destination for beachlovers and retirees, including spectacular Cascade Head to the north (see photo) and (not surprisingly) a broad seven-mile beach.

Unfortunately, Lincoln City has been a long-term victim of unregulated strip development along Highway 101 all the way down to Siletz Bay. This major highway is a nightmare of snarled traffic during the summer months (1). Highway 101 is simply unable to accommodate heavy volumes of tourist traffic, which only increased with the construction of a popular tribal casino on the northern edge of town. The traffic lights aren't synchronized, giving drivers plenty of opportunities to observe sprawl at its worst: a seemingly endless array of gas stations, fast-food emporia, convenience stores, motels, tourist boutiques, factory-outlet strip malls and all the other paraphernalia of unrestrained automobile culture in the U.S. Thousands of signs and billboards, all competing for the attention of numbed drivers, deface the highway corridor in all directions.

Summer cottages and motels line the beach from one end of town to the other (photo, left). A beachcomber might as well be on the Jersey shore, though the surf is higher on this side of the continent. Yet people keep coming, and building: the population of Lincoln County increased by 50% between 1970 and 1990 alone.

Apparently the newcomers were unconcerned about the practical and aesthetic deficiencies of this overbuilt portion of the coast. For generations, Lincoln City's political leadership accepted and applied the received model for economic development: more is better, even if uninhibited growth begins to undermine all the natural advantages of scenic areas. (As one member of my town's city council once said: "If you don't grow, you die"—the ideology of the cancer cell, as novelist Edward Abbey pointed out much earlier.)

Lincoln City, like many other Oregon towns, has an Urban Growth Boundary that is designed to contain sprawl and confine it to designated areas. It also has detailed zoning codes and all the other accoutrements of Oregon's land-use planning system (2). Yet it's clearly not working on any level, and the final result seems little better than unplanned coastal development in places like Connecticut, Alabama and Maryland.

Lincoln City's present city leadership shouldn't bear the blame for this chaos, which is the result of decades of inadequate transportation planning and a lack of sensitivity to aesthetic issues. In fact, Lincoln City seems to grasp the scope of the problem created by that sad legacy, and is trying to address it.

Clearly this is more than a local problem, and it runs far deeper than familiar liberal/conservative disputes over government regulation of land-use planning and design.

During the early phases of the long national decline in educational standards, many public schools abandoned art classes completely. The inevitable result is that Americans have become ever more visually illiterate and desensitized to questions of design. Sprawl seems irresistable, even in the state with the nation's most sophisticated land-use planning scheme (until the passage of Ballot Measure 37, that is). As with clearcuts, Oregonians barely seem to notice the cumulative effects of autocentric development.

The uglier our built landscape becomes, the less likely we are to imagine—much less demand—an alternative. Aside from a relatively small group of new urbanists, few people have undertaken an in-depth critique of the autocentric model and its pernicious effects on our inner life as a culture. As a nation, we're caught in a vicious feedback loop that permeates, and degrades, both our national landscape and our imaginations. There's nothing unusual about Lincoln City except its location: its visual motifs are endlessly repeated across Oregon, from McMinnville to Gresham to Pendleton, and across the country.

The problems caused by dependency on the automobile go far beyond our notorious addiction to oil, and those problems won't be solved by ethanol additives or hybrids.


(1) Producing one of the worst traffic jams I've ever seen one hot day last summer when we were driving to a trailhead on Cascade Head. Traffic was so immobilized that the trip took three hours longer than usual. And, having lived in the New York area for many years, I'm no stranger to colossal traffic snarls. As Leonard Cohen writes in Boogie Street, "I'm wanted at the traffic jam / They're saving me a seat..."—lines that can apply to many places in Oregon, and not just the Portland region. (The large town of Bend in central Oregon deserves special mention as one of the worst examples of rampant unregulated growth.)

(2) Displaying a gift for bureaucratic understatement, Lincoln City's comprehensive plan notes the following: "The public and private forests of the Coast Range provide additional recreational activities, although the forests are primarily managed for the intensive harvest of timber." Whenever you read a phrase like "intensive harvest of timber," imagine large clearcuts (as previously noted here and here). And you can safely substitute "primarily" with "exclusively." Take a virtual tour of the Coast Range east of Lincoln City via Google Earth and you'll see what I mean.

Final note: Yes, I traveled to the coast by automobile—and no, there's no other way to get there. Despite everything, Cascade Head remains a place worth reaching.

PHOTO #1: Hart's Cove on Cascade Head, Oregon Coast (my photo, 2006)

PHOTO #2: Highway 101 in northern Lincoln City, Oregon, from 9,000 feet (Google Earth).


Anonymous said...

Good Heavens! Go back to New York!
Your trip most likely took longer due to an accident. Your true complaint is more based on population control, ie. population reduction, than on cars.

M.J. O'Brien said...

Thanks for the comment (I guess). The trip wasn't the result of an accident--I checked. It was caused by a "perfect storm" of conditions: one of the hottest days of the year, on a Sunday, at the intersection of two very busy highways (101 and 18) near the casino in Lincoln City. A three-hour delay is unusual, but heavy weekend traffic on the coastal highways of Oregon is the rule rather than the exception.

While I probably agree with you about population as a contributor, I don't think that population always correlates with out-of-control autocentric development. The EU has a much bigger population, but automobile culture isn't as well established there--yet. Unfortunately, that seems to be changing, despite the ease of using efficient public transportation to travel just about anywhere.

As for going "back to New York," it would be refreshing to offer a critique of the place where one lives without being told to go "back to X."