Our Cities and Towns: About Growth and Quality of Life

This evening my wife and I are attending a presentation on “growth,” in our cities and towns. The program is being presented by a local environmental group, and we hear that the featured speaker is excellent. The topic of “growth” is of considerable interest to us. Many in America and other parts of the world have serious questions about the upside and the downside of growth in their local regions.

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“The Valley of Heart’s Delight” – today known as Silicon Valley, Ca.

Linda and I have had the great good fortune to live here, in Silicon Valley, California, since 1970. We are located between the major cities of San Francisco and San Jose. Silicon Valley is named after the natural element, silicon – the key and ubiquitous “ingredient” in semiconductor fabrication. Silicon and its attendant technologies constitute the modern-day California gold-rush. Before “Silicon Valley” was so-named in the late nineteen fifties, this fertile valley was known as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” As recently as sixty years ago, aerial views of the land revealed one vast landscape of orchards – as far as the eye could see. At ground-level, the view of fruit-tree blossoms in spring and the effect of their perfume in the air were the essence of the term, “delight.” Apricots, cherries, and prunes were especially prevalent and were acclaimed as the very best that could be found – anywhere.

Today’s aerial views reveal a very different landscape; the transformation of the area over the past sixty years is nothing less than phenomenal. The fertile soil of the valley has been paved over in favor of roads, roads which connect the myriad of technology companies covering the region. Today, one is hard-pressed to locate even a one-acre orchard anywhere in this valley.

The city of Sunnyvale maintains a small portion of its former apricot orchards as part of its community center. The orchard is carefully tended and its delicious cots are sold on-site every year at harvest time – a boon to the local residents. This orchard will be protected and preserved for generations to come.

Nestled next to the orchard plot is the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum which opened in 2008. It does an excellent job researching, preserving, and presenting the rich historical heritage of this entire valley. This is a history which is both fascinating and crucial to intelligent planning for the future of the region. The presentation on growth which we will be attending is being given at the museum tonight.

Like California’s gold rush of 1849 which gave birth to boom-towns overnight, today’s technology boom has converted sleepy valley towns into a wall-to-wall conglomeration of thriving metropolises. Unlike the boom-towns born of the gold rush which were quickly abandoned and fell to ruin once the easy gold was taken, these modern-day cities will be around for a long time to come. Unlike gold, silicon, the major constituent of sand, is and always will be very plentiful, as will the technological applications for it in the form of semiconductors.

Discussions about the upside and the downside of growth are particularly meaningful in this most unusual place, because the effects of growth, for better or worse, are so amplified and accelerated in Silicon Valley. I would characterize this region as THE “test tube” locale for city planners studying the effects of growth on residents and their quality of life.

Been Here Since 1948: Oh, the Changes that Have Occurred!

My credentials for commentary on the changes in this region actually go back beyond 1970 to 1948, the year our young family moved to California from Chicago, Illinois. We lived north of here, in San Mateo – about twenty miles toward San Francisco. Orchards were not so prevalent on the northern peninsula, nearer “The City,” but the life-style in those little population concentrations was distinctly “small town.” I recall the late forties when San Francisco International Airport was one small building that looked much like a suburban Greyhound bus terminal does today. When your plane boarded at gate 2 in those days, you actually walked along a covered open-air walkway and entered the apron where the plane was waiting by going through a four-foot high, swinging “garden” gate. A modern new terminal was opened in 1954 which was a delight for travelers.

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 SFO in 1960 when you could park and walk to the (only) terminal

As a young boy with a new driver’s license and a penchant for airplanes, I loved to drive to the airport, swing into a parking place just outside the modern new terminal and watch the airplanes come and go from the roof. How exciting that was! Good luck trying that today. Like most of today’s international airports, SFO is a nasty complex of multi-terminals, elevated skyways which criss-cross each other in confusing fashion, and multi-story parking garages.

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SFO today. Is this really “progress?”

My wife and I have lived in our house for the last forty-two years. We have seen, first-hand, the changes I describe, and we have been a part of those changes in the valley: Me, as an electrical engineer in the world of computer technology/start-up companies and my wife as a schoolteacher.

For the first twenty years after settling here in 1970, life was beautiful in our little city. Most “things” were new and fresh and manageable – like buildings, shops and shopping centers, the local library, and roads that were smooth with plenty of capacity for the traffic back then. Then things began to change. Today, we have horrible traffic – not just at rush hour, but virtually all day long. What used to be a pleasant five minute drive to the new Sears with its wide apron of ample-parking, is today an effort due to a blizzard of cars and a string of traffic lights that never before existed.  And good luck finding a parking space at Sears! That same store that was once the brand-new focal point of its spacious surroundings is now surrounded by a shopping mall and numerous other businesses and their office buildings. The massive new Apple headquarters under construction near that location will prove an additional, notable housing and traffic challenge to the area.

 Too Many People and Too Much Traffic!

There are too many people here, now. What was once the major attraction of the region – great weather and surroundings – has been surpassed by the money that can be made in the local tech industries. The fine colleges and universities in the area are also a draw for the techies who come here. Stanford University is here, in nearby Palo Alto, and can rightly be termed the catalyst for the whole phenomenon of Silicon Valley. The remarkable story of Stanford University, itself, deserves a whole blog-post of its own (will happen) – in fact, a whole book of its own.

Returning to the main point, the money and jobs which power this valley have increasingly undermined its quality of life by attracting too many newcomers, increasing the traffic immeasurably, and decreasing the air quality of this one-beautiful region. Yes, that may sound hypocritical since most of us were newcomers to this region at one time – in my case, decades ago, but there is another viewpoint to be considered. When we older residents arrived here, the valley had plenty of open space, easy access, plenty of services, and a long way to go before its economic promise was to be fulfilled through the efforts of us, its new residents.

For me personally, and in the opinion of most old-timers in the region, continued “growth” in the form of new jobs and more people is not a positive trend at this juncture. If one is OK with the transformation of suburban living into urban living with its necessary population densities, the trend will not be a problem. For local officials who salivate over more tax revenue and for developers who turn silicon into gold, the situation is marvelous. Four to six-story “condominium blocks” are sprouting up all around the region, adding hundreds of new cars to the road for each new development. The modest homes in some neighborhoods that have stood for decades are increasingly being “shadowed” by two and three-story mini-mansions. These, of course, were built on proportionally small lots made available by the purchase and subsequent demolition of older homes.

A favorite way to relax, for me, is stepping out on our patio at dawn to greet the day, a cup of coffee in hand; I often bid the day farewell in like fashion. In addition to the increasing roar and boom of traffic noise from distant freeways, one often hears the wail of sirens – fire or police. The sound of emergency vehicles was once a great rarity, here – no more. Now it is commonplace, not quite like NYC or downtown Chicago, but definitely on the rise as this area becomes more and more urbanized.

 The Morning After (the Presentation on Growth)

Now, as I complete this post, it is the next morning, and my wife and I have additional insight from last night’s aforementioned presentation on the complex issue of “growth” in our towns and cities. The former city planner who delivered the talk raised some good points. I would like to have had some post-presentation discussion time with him, but that proved not to be feasible.

The one question which intrigues me: What is the major paradigm underlying the evolution and ultimate destiny of towns and cities? Specifically, is it possible for a region to grow and reach an equilibrium point where both booming growth is curtailed and population densities stabilize well before the quality of life is adversely affected? The variables involved in the dynamics of growth are fascinating and complex – Phd thesis material. A caution: It is important for city planners to succeed in identifying both the variables involved in growth dynamics and the “handles” available to modulate those variables. But one must realize that, at a given time and circumstance, the specific handles that need pulling (the necessary corrections) are not always available or operable for various reasons. The NIMBY (not in my back yard) effect can kill many generally meritorious municipal building projects, for instance.

I suspect that the real answer to my above question is this: Towns and cities are destined to grow and achieve an optimal quality of life for their residents. From that point forward, they seem ultimately doomed to continue the urbanization trend until aging infrastructure, population density, and other of the many variables involved make life in such cities and towns unpalatable. External events and trends can drastically alter the status of regions. The histories of once-great cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit provide interesting case studies. Like Silicon Valley today, they were once the industrial gemstones of this country’s economy, and look at them now. The external trend that changed Detroit completely was the emergence of the global economy and Japanese auto manufacturers.

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The abandoned and trashed, once-proud central rail terminal in Detroit

The notion of towns and cities being destined to grow to their eventual destruction is quite troubling. One would wish for wise local governments and populations who could recognize a good thing and declare that “more is not good.” But perhaps we are doomed to a version of the “Shembechler doctrine,” Bo Schembechler being the former great football coach at the University of Michigan. Schembechler’s mantra for inspiring his players went like this: “You are either getting better, or you are getting worse.” In other words, there is no viable state which allows maintaining the status quo, staying at the current level. If you are not improving, you are slipping according to coach Bo.

Similarly, perhaps town and cities must also either continue to grow (the illusion of getting “better”) or curtail growth and face the prospect of quickly wilting (getting “worse”) and a premature demise. History provides many instances of sustained, uncontrolled long-term growth which, while prolonging life, seems to impose an inevitable day of reckoning. Perhaps we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t!

“You Are Either Getting Better or You Are Getting Worse”

I first saw this PaineWebber investment group advertisement featuring then-Michigan head football coach Bo Schembechler many years ago. His implied investment advice was obviously inspired by his motivation mantra for the Michigan players.

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My initial reaction was one of bemusement…and then I started to think about it. He goes on to say, “The moment you stop growing you begin falling behind.” The more I thought about it, the more I began to believe in the fundamental truth of its assertions. When we think we are keeping up with life – doing OK, “holding our own” – we may actually be falling behind due to the fast pace of today’s world. Much of what we learned in school is now out-dated. What new knowledge have we gathered and what additional skills have we forged? I got out my cutters as I am often wont to do, and I carefully trimmed the full-page ad from the magazine. It has had a prominent display space in our back hallway for many years now – a constant admonition and reminder about the trap of complacency to me to and anyone else who might happen to notice it.

Coach Schembechler was very successful during his long tenure as the University of Michigan’s head coach. Usually a coach of that caliber has the proven ability to motivate his players. One of his star pupils years ago was a young fellow who played quarterback there, one Jim Harbaugh who is now familiar to sports fans as the newly-arrrived head coach who rejuvenated the San Francisco 49ers football franchise into a Super Bowl team in two short years. Less well-known, but equally impressive: Prior to arriving in San Francisco, he stopped in Palo Alto to turn around a dismal Stanford University football program by going from a 1-11 record to 11-1 in three years. His coaching results have been amazing. What is his secret?

I was excited and pleased to read in the sports page last fall that Coach Harbaugh has a sign prominently posted in the 49ers training camp which reads…..I’m sure you can guess! He obviously paid attention to his coach at Michigan and believed in the message he received there.

At my age, I do pay attention to his admonition because I believe in it. I liken the personal concept of “keeping up” and “maintaining one’s status quo” to the illusion of the hard-riding cowboys of the early silver screen. The camera faithfully recorded the landscape flying by as the hero chased the bad guy on horseback – at full speed. The reality, of course, was that the cowboy was mounted on a stationary “horse” while a stage-hand vigorously operated the endless-loop panorama in the background.

The punch-line for the cowboy and the lesson for us might read, “The world is passing you by as you sit there so comfortably.” For us seniors on the other hand, after several decades of personal striving to “get better” and with a still-healthy determination to keep on trying, it is wise to occasionally sit back and smell the roses for just a little while.