John Mauro is smart growth director for Pilchuck Audubon Society in Everett, Wash. He works to stop sprawl and ensure that clean water and wildlife habitat maintain a high profile in the growth-management dialogue.

Monday, 11 Aug 2003

EVERETT, Wash.

I live a good portion of my day in spandex. Perhaps atypical apparel for a smart growth director, its use murmurs a message I carry with me to work: save your soul, save your community, ride a bike. And so I pedal the morning miles, more than 30 of them, through crisp air, the passing glow of other cyclists, faint ripples on Lake Washington, and the distant sight of glaciated volcanoes. In a region where the average driver spends 40 hours a year stuck in traffic — and where she has increased daily driving from 9.3 to 22.2 miles — I border on the smitten. Only 20 minutes slower than the regional express bus and a necessary part of my day, I love my bike commute.

I arrive refreshed and eager, with my game face already on, of course. As I open up the Pilchuck Audubon Society office in downtown Everett this fine Monday and rework my image (no, I don’t wear spandex throughout the workday), I contemplate, once again, this particular game of Smart Growth.

To most, the Audubon Society conjures images of dedicated birders, often an older demographic, and the education and advocacy necessary to protect avifauna from the perils of human influence. Organized in the late 1800s, the National Audubon Society was truly visionary. A volunteer-driven society, NAS sprung from the crisis of over-harvesting bird plumage, mainly for the fashion industry. Powered mostly by women activists (who, as they often did, let men pretend that they were in charge), NAS was able to turn around damaging human preferences in the name of bird and habitat conservation.

Not-so-smart growth.

Now zoom a century ahead: A new crisis has been festering for some time in its complexities and a chapter of the very same society puts on a different image. Pilchuck Audubon Society’s Smart Growth Program was born out of necessity in a region that has seen some of the most uncontrolled growth in the nation. Yes, dedicated volunteers ensure that our education programs still run, that our monthly program meetings and presentations go off without a hitch, and that our field guides still sell like hotcakes, but we’ve also taken on the issue of sprawl. Why? Sprawl and birds are really the same issue. Of 341 regularly sighted birds in Washington state, more than 100 (30 percent) are considered threatened or targeted for conservation action. Habitat alteration, which goes hand in hand with sprawl, is the heaviest impact on birds and is inextricably linked to quality of human life, so sprawl is at the hub of our conservation wheel.

Human impact can be packaged simplistically in a dual formula: consumption of resources and population. In a previous life, I taught an environmental studies lab class at Middlebury College in Vermont. I decided to ground our semester analysis of things like campus alternative energy initiatives and water quality monitoring with the concept of the Ecological Footprint. Besides bringing impact to a personal and tangible level and giving everyone something to wrestle with, the concept made clear the myriad connections between the landscape and resource use and helped point us toward the goal(s) of sustainability.

So what is sprawl? Well, it’s personal — people know it when they see it — but it’s far from tangible. Some say sprawl is the suburban takeover of green space and agricultural lands; others note that it’s ugly, auto-dependent box-store development. Phrases like “leap-frog development” or uncontrolled growth are often used, while sprawl might also be defined as increasingly distant, low-density development away from town centers that outpaces population growth. I say our disproportionate footprint is chosen inefficiency (again, those damaging human preferences), blatant lack of creativity in design and planning, a caravan of transportation myths and auto enslavement, and a neglect of long-term human and ecosystem health.

As I chow my first lunch (60 miles of bike commuting a day has me consuming copious amounts of our region’s agricultural resources) and review my Daily Grist, I tap into the Washington State Office of Financial Management‘s recent demographic data. My region of interest — Snohomish County, Wash. — is the 38th fastest growing county (of 3,141) in the nation. Under the state’s Growth Management Act (a visionary law adopted in 1990 that some criticize and others say hasn’t gone far enough), each county must have a Comprehensive Plan. With this plan, the county works from state population forecasts and with regional steering committees and cities to allocate future population growth. How and where we accommodate this growth is a challenging dilemma — and a contentious issue. Interestingly, this year Snohomish County is undertaking a 10-year update of its Comprehensive Plan — an opportunity to reassess the 25-year vision of what we want our communities to look, feel, and be like. Today, I’m polishing up pages of my policy suggestions to the county on this very issue.

As the first environmental group in Snohomish County (founded in 1971), we here at the Pilchuck Audubon Society involve ourselves heavily in the public participation process. Our approach, really, spans across many disciplines, and I find my job description morphing as the issues and solutions become more complex. Those interested in an abstract (or quasi-manifesto) of the typical Smart Growth routine I’ll be personalizing this week, come hither: We build and sustain grassroots activist support for participation in the political process, we work with a suite of other groups in coalitions and partnerships, we help craft and revise land-use and habitat-protection policy, we work with the media, we testify at hearings, we occasionally use legal action to enforce habitat protection laws, and, yes, we fundraise to keep our vision of livable communities and healthy ecosystems alive.

Oh, and we have a staff of one, and he has to get back on his bike soon and spin home this Monday to his wonderful perch in the middle of this dynamic, growth-challenged region.