EDITORIAL: The Green, Green Grass of Home, Part Five

Read Part One

When choosing her examples of functional and dysfunctional urban neighborhoods for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, activist author Jane Jacobs focused mainly on her home town: New York City. The city was home to about 7.8 million people at that time. Ms. Jacobs came to the conclusion, based on her research and personal experiences in New York, that active streets and sidewalks were essential to the vibrancy and safety of the city. Because most of the people, in a city of 7.8 million, are necessarily strangers to one another, the primary way that a neighborhood remains “safe” and “welcoming” is by having a fairly constant flow of strangers enjoying the surrounding public areas and businesses, day and night.

In Ms. Jacob’s view, nothing is so unwelcoming, in a city of strangers, as an empty street with no one else around. It’s precisely the constant presence of strangers — going to or leaving their homes, shopping in the corner market, hanging around the bars, working in an office late at night, walking kids to school — that makes a city come alive, and feel safe. She felt that the “best” neighborhoods in great American cities felt that way due to a wide variety of shops, businesses, entertainment spots and residences all mixed together in close proximity.

The most fearful places were the ones with the least human activity, she found.

Ms. Jacobs also presented, in her book, numerous examples of failed attempts by professional planners to “fix” problem neighborhoods in big cities — by applying urban planning theories that had, in her opinion, no basis in the actual realities of city living. Many times, the planning solutions merely made the situation worse.

Pagosa Springs is not New York City. That goes without saying. But I’m saying it anyway, because we are going to consider how the ideas that Jane Jacobs developed in 1961 relate to our plans for the future of Archuleta County.

This discussion might be especially timely this summer, because the Town of Pagosa Springs has been working, for the past several months, on an update to its Comprehensive Plan — a plan first written in 2006 and pretty much ignored for the next 10 years.

Appropriately enough, the Archuleta County Planning Department and Planning Commission are also working on some ‘minor’ updates to the County’s key planning document — the Archuleta County Community Plan, first written in 2001 and largely ignored for the next 15 years.

Last Wednesday evening, I had the pleasure of attending a ‘drop-in open house’ hosted by the County Planning Commission and Planning Department. During the half-hour I was there, maybe a dozen members of the public stopped in and chatted with the event hosts about this or that community concern. The Pagosa Skyrocket. Historic preservation. Promotion of in-fill development. Road maintenance, or lack thereof. Transportation issues.

Archuleta County Community Plan update ‘open house,’ June 14, 2017.

According to County Planning Manager John Shepard, this particular Community Plan update will be a low-key attempt to clarify and strengthen a few sections of the 2001 version of the Plan — rather than a comprehensive update like the one the Town is currently undertaking. He said the County hopes to make use of some of the Town’s new research and data, and will attempt to better align the County plan with related aspects of the Town plan.

Archuleta County is currently facing some daunting challenges. Some of them are obvious, such as the “Now Hiring” signs prominently posted at the entrances to most of our larger businesses, and the “illegal” living conditions suffered by working class families who cannot afford a home in our current rental market.

Other challenges are not so obvious, but perhaps just as real, and just as important.

As mentioned in Part Three of this article series, rural towns have somewhat different mechanisms than big cities for controlling social behaviors. Jane Jacobs could sensibly propose that, in New York City, a constant flow of strangers through an urban neighborhood — along the streets and sidewalks, in and out of homes and businesses — contributes to security and vibrancy of that neighborhood.

Historically, the control of social behaviors in small-town Pagosa Springs derived largely from the fact that everyone knew everyone. We knew who was a con artist. We knew who was generous and trustworthy. We were not a community of strangers, but a community of neighbors. We watched each other — sometimes approvingly, sometimes disapprovingly — and watched out for each other.

That mechanism no longer works in Archuleta County. Beginning in the 1970s, and coming into full flower during the early 2000s, Archuleta County turned its attention away from “small town” and towards “tourist town.” The most obvious result of this change of focus was the arrival of thousands of second-home owners and retirees, who want to live here part time and enjoy the community and the surrounding natural beauty, but who do not want to become part of the work force.

The U.S. Census estimated the median age of the Archuleta County population, in 2000, at about 41 years old. Fifteen years later, in 2015, the estimate was 50 years old.

The median age for the state of Colorado, in 2015, was estimated at 36 years old.

The promotion of tourism, as the town’s central economic facet, grew even stronger with the Town Council’s decision in 2006 to institute a Lodgers Tax, with the revenues used for marketing Archuleta County as a great place to visit — for a few days or maybe a week.

During this transition to a tourism economy, the physical layout of the town was undergoing an even more radical change. In 1970, most of the county population lived within a mile of the core downtown shopping district. In other words, we lived within walking distance of one another.

Today, thanks to the “planning” concepts built into our Town and County land use codes and our subdivision covenants, such as the (unintended?) emphasis on isolation of individual homes and on “required open space,” and thanks to the way the community has been allowed to sprawl across 200 square miles, we no longer walk anywhere, except for exercise. There is no “life” on our streets, because we are locked inside our individual automobiles, headed for Walmart.

Pagosa Springs was once a community of neighbors. More and more, we are becoming a community of visitors.

That is to say, we are becoming a community of strangers. But we don’t have the built-in social and economic mechanism that Jane Jacobs found in healthy urban neighborhoods — the sidewalk vibrancy and activity that she deemed necessary for a community of strangers to dwell together in harmony and safety.

Can we turn this thing around? Because we seem headed in the wrong direction.

Read Part Six…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.