What City do you want Santa Fe not to Become?

Date February 28, 2008 at 11:00 PM

Author Alan M. Webber

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Health Care


There comes a time in the life of every city-usually when it is at a critical cross-roads, when its future is at stake-when it has to decide which other city it doesn't want to be.

That was true for Portland, Oregon in the early 1970s.

It's true for Santa Fe now.

Back in the 1970s I was an assistant to the young mayor of Portland who had run for office on a campaign that said, "Ours is a city with much to cherish, much to save, and too much to lose to remain idle."€ In fact, Portland was at an inflection point. San Francisco to the south was established as a sophisticated city; Seattle to the north was coming into its own with a booming economy. Portland was a growing, changing cow-town that needed to decide what it wanted to be-or more important, what it didn't want to be.

What it didn't want to be, Portland decided, was Los Angeles.

The scale may seem inappropriate, but in fundamental ways the comparison was apt.

Like LA, Portland had a transportation plan that relied entirely on the automobile. Designed after World War II by Robert Moses, the New York master builder who loved cars and despised transit, the Portland plan called for so many freeways to be constructed that, had they all been built, one out of every 10 homes in the city would either have been removed by a freeway or ended up adjacent to one. In other words, it would have looked and functioned like LA.

It would have been a city of commuters and smog, a city of decimated neighborhoods and an empty downtown. Those who could afford to leave would have abandoned Portland and moved to the suburbs. The city would have spiraled down socially and economically.

Instead the mayor and a majority of Portlanders consciously chose to become "the un-LA."€ The most controversial freeway on the Moses plan was junked and the money used to build not a highway but instead a light rail system. A downtown plan was undertaken and it lead to more transit downtown, fewer cars, more parks and open space, and, most important, more downtown housing. In the mayor's office we adopted what the mayor called "the population strategy"€: The goal was to create conditions in the city that would lead middle-income families with children-the social glue of the community-to choose to live in the city, rather than in the suburbs. That included interweaving new initiatives in economic development, crime prevention in the neighborhoods, improved city services, neighborhood associations to represent each area of the city, and better schools.

If you go to Portland today, you'll see the results of that decision almost 40 years ago to go the opposite way of Los Angeles. In almost every survey of American cities, Portland consistently ranks at or near the top of the list for livability. It's a city that can point with pride to a high quality of life, a sustainable way of life that welcomes young people as well as families and seniors to a stimulating and comfortable community.

Now what about Santa Fe?

Santa Fe today is where Portland was in the early 1970s.

The city has changed dramatically in the last few years; the next few years promise to bring even more change. The questions are, what kind of change? Where will it lead? What kind of city will Santa Fe become? What choices will guide Santa Fe's future?

Or, to go back to where I started, what city does Santa Fe want not to become?

Based on my own experiences here and in other Western cities, I'd say that Santa Fe's version of Portland's Los Angeles is Aspen, Colorado. If we can make good policy choices and sound public decisions, we can avoid the fate that has befallen that once-attractive town. Aspen today is not much more than a play-pen for billionaires; in fact the billionaires have mostly evicted the mere millionaires, and any one who actually works in Aspen-the ordinary people-live miles down the valley in over-crowded trailer parks or hastily thrown up low-cost housing developments. What went wrong for Aspen? And what should Santa Fe do instead?

Very simply, I believe that Santa Fe's goals for the future should start where Portland's did: Making sure that Santa Fe is the kind of city where ordinary middle-income families with children can still live. That means knitting together a set of initiatives, some economic, some social, that taken together will build a sound, sensible, sustainable future for Santa Fe.

What kinds of initiatives? Good public schools, for one-Santa Feans have to care deeply about the quality of the public schools here, to make the schools attractive to parents who can choose whether to send their children to the public schools, to invest in private education-or simply to choose to go elsewhere.

Affordable housing for another-in order to avoid becoming another Aspen, Santa Fe needs to adopt a wide variety of solutions and strategies for the production of housing to serve middle income families. That includes row houses and condominiums, lofts and other styles and kinds of housing that can change the economics of home-ownership and rentals. It also includes more housing in the downtown area; to avoid looking and working like Aspen, Santa Fe needs a downtown area that is alive to people long after the shops have closed to tourists.

Another key element is an economic development strategy, ideas for Santa Fe's economic and work-life future that extend well beyond tourism and real estate. If you look at the demographics of Santa Fe, the city has a strong cadre of young people, and a significant population of older people. What's under-represented are the people in the middle. And that may be because of not enough opportunities for work, not enough stimulating, rewarding ways to make a productive living, rather than just enjoying a comfortable life. With the Internet liberating more and more people to live where they work and work where they live, Santa Fe ought to be an attractive place for all kinds of knowledge-workers to choose to come-but only if there is a conscious strategy to cater to their needs beyond work. Those needs include more chances for intellectual stimulation, social cohesion, and recreational enjoyment. And they include a well-crafted strategy for environmental sustainability-something Santa Fe ought to be focusing on with laser-like concentration in any event.

One piece of that environmental strategy is a new approach to regional transportation, taking advantage of the Rail Runner. More transit serving more people at lower cost and with greater efficiency can only be a strategy for Santa Fe that will preserve and enhance the quality of life here. Weave those pieces together-or even make a start by embracing a few key elements and getting some energy moving behind them-and Santa Fe will be taking real honest steps away from becoming another Aspen and toward keeping the best of Santa Fe, while recognizing the inevitability of change.

But that's just my list; be my guest: make your own.

Before you do, however, answer my first question: What city do you want Santa Fe not to become? Start with that and see where it leads you.