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Two Chicagos

By Frank Gruber

At a recent meeting of Santa Monica's Environmental Task Force (ETF), a representative of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) presented the agency’s projection that the population of Southern California will increase six million by 2030 -- the equivalent of "two Chicagos."

Katherine Perez appeared before the ETF to encourage Santa Monica's participation in a series of "visioning" workshops SCAG will conduct over the next few months to gather ideas on what might be done to plan for this growth.

(For The Lookout's story on the ETF meeting, go to “Santa Monica Joins Regional Effort to Tackle Growth,” March 20)

While "shock and awe" seem to be the most common reactions to SCAG's two Chicagos prediction, it should hardly be a surprise if the region's population increases by six million in 25 years, since it increased five million between 1980 and 2000.

SCAG anticipates that at least half the amount of growth will come from "natural increase" -- the excess of births over deaths -- rather than from immigration. The 1990s were the first decade since the arrival of the Spanish that our population grew more from natural increase than from immigration.

This is important. Many Californians have railed for many years about how immigration has "ruined" the state, and this anger has increased as fewer immigrants hailed from Iowa and more from Mexico and points south and (far) west.

I expect that SCAG hopes people will take planning for growth more seriously if they understand that most of the growth represents their children and grandchildren.

At the ETF meeting, however, Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown took the argument in another direction. He suggested that advocacy of birth control should be part of the planning process.

McKeown's point, as he subsequently explained it to me in an email, is that our planning efforts are based on the "supply side," -- i.e., we direct our planning energies to supplying enough infrastructure for whatever demand there will be, without trying, alternatively, to reduce demand by reducing population.

Before I go off on just how misguided McKeown's ideas are, let me say that I have no plans to invoke the specter of China's one-child rules against them. I trust, without any doubt, that when McKeown says that he would include "non-coercive education on population control" as part of our planning efforts, he means non-coercive.

Nor is there anything wrong with educating teenagers about sex and birth control and family planning. In fact, there is a lot that is right: the myriad reasons why young people should have the knowledge to make choices that will affect their own well-being as they become adults and raise families.

But at the "macro" level, overpopulation is not the issue, neither locally or globally. Demographers now predict that by the middle of this century, world population will be in decline. Already in Europe and Japan, the population is rapidly aging as births have declined below replacement levels. As the world urbanizes and develops, birth rates decline.

Locally, Southern California is one of the richest and most productive places on earth. Continuous population growth has presented constant challenge, but also constant opportunity. If you compare the problems we have here to the problems of cities that have stopped growing, you realize that the problems of growth are more manageable than the problems of decline.

For instance, traffic is terrible up and down the east coast, where there has been little population increase, and they have the same urban and inner suburban problems we have -- housing, schools, decaying infrastructure. At the same time, they have fewer economic resources.

While the Southern California megalopolis may appear chaotic and dystopic, the whole world looks here for inspiration. The wonderfulness of our urban life may be hidden behind the traffic, like the forest behind the trees, but we are the 21st century city, and it's because of our still dynamic growth.

Complain as we all do, most of us wouldn't live anywhere else.

On a "micro" planning level, one has to ask what good it might do to include family planning in urban planning. What effect could these efforts have? If population increases five million rather than six, what difference could that have on planning? The only addition such thinking makes to planning is another rationalization for denial.

But I do not want to minimize the challenges continued growth will present. Just the opposite. Ever more people means that we must grow smarter -- to manage our resources ever more efficiently, to manage growth so that it can be sustainable.

Planning for growth used to mean subsidizing sprawl, with roads, schools, and other infrastructure. Today our task is more difficult. In addition to resources that have traditionally been in short supply, such as water and clean air, we now face, in effect, a shortage of space itself as we choke on the cumulative negative effects of sprawl.

But there is no reason to throw in the towel, and simply implore people to have fewer children. Instead we need to redirect investment to already built-up areas, so as to improve quality of life at the same time we make development more sustainable by increasing the efficiency by which we use limited resources.

We can do it, although the obstacles, primarily political, are daunting. Just consider the success of the long and ongoing battle against smog. There was the will, our predecessors found the ways, and nearly 50 years after the battle was joined, our air is much cleaner despite huge increases in population.

We need to assemble our imaginations to devise solutions to analogous problems that only seem intractable, along with the will to make the decisions and investments needed to implement them.

SCAG's "visioning" workshops are a start.

To learn more about the SCAG workshops, go to

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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