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Exurb growth challenges U.S. cities

Urban centers feel the pinch as people move beyond the 'burbs

From Tom Foreman

A housing development spreads into the hills of Jefferson County, southwest of Denver, Colorado.
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(CNN) -- The highways hum at rush hour in Denver, Colorado, with more than a million commuters fighting a daily battle for space and time.

Buried in the traffic, Paul Sutton thinks about a more difficult fight: the struggle of this city -- and dozens more like it -- to control growth.

"I think it is one of the most fundamentally important issues with respect to social problems, economic problems and environmental problems," said Sutton, an assistant professor in the University of Denver's geography department. "Everything gets harder as the population grows."

The West is the fastest-growing region of the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Colorado's population grew by about 30 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Sutton said he believes urban growth everywhere is happening even faster than people realize.

Using satellite photos of nighttime lights to measure sprawl, he has concluded that his family, and a third of all Americans, are living in "exurbia" -- places just beyond the suburbs where the country looks like country again, beyond the limits of most studies of urban growth.

"I think a lot of the old ideas of suburban living are now in exurbia," Sutton said. "There is a natural environment; kids are not going to get run over by a bus.

"I don't lock my house," Sutton said. "There's no crime."

So people live better for less money, a little farther away. Why does that matter?

First, Sutton said, because fire and police protection, school bus routes, water lines, phone service and electricity must be available for such homes -- all of which is costly.

Second, he said, many who live in exurbia still work in cities, adding to traffic and pollution, and demanding services there, rather than forming independent small towns with self-sustaining economies.

In effect, cities get stuck paying bills run up by people who live in the exurbs.

"I don't think growth pays its own way," said former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm.

Lamm said he believes all states need to reassess how much growth they want.

"If growth was good for society, if it cut taxes, then Los Angeles would be the cheapest place to live in the world. It's not. It's among the most expensive," the three-term Democrat said. "So I think that growth is subsidized by everyday taxpayers in a way that most of them don't fully realize."

The state Department of Local Affairs, which helps towns manage growth, says things were different 15 years ago, when Colorado's economy staggered.

"We wanted any growth for any reason, any time, any place, any how," said Kathi Williams, director of the Colorado Division of Housing. "Then, of course, we came into the boom years, and we saw just exactly what the product of that was."

The executive director of the Department of Local Affairs, Mike Beasley, offers one way to prevent further traffic snarls, soaring house prices and crowding of open spaces: concentrating growth in towns rather than pushing into undeveloped land.

"Those little communities in rural Colorado, by the way, don't really see it as a burden," Beasley said. "They see it as an opportunity and really the future of their communities."

That idea echoes one of the common characteristics cited by proponents of so-called smart growth. Smart growth calls for compact suburban development integrated into existing commercial areas or new town centers, with proximity to transportation facilities also important, according to the Urban Land Institute.

The Washington-based nonprofit organization, which focuses on land-use issues, defines smart growth as development that is environmentally sensitive, economically viable, community-oriented and sustainable.

"To check runaway land consumption, we need to provide incentives for development in existing urban and suburban areas, build new development at higher densities and set aside natural areas as off-limits to new development," said Don Chen, executive director of Smart Growth America, a Washington-based coalition of advocacy organizations.

His group -- along with the National Wildlife Federation and NatureServe -- issued a study in January that found growth in the nation's fastest-growing large metropolitan areas could threaten the survival of a third of all imperiled species.

Colorado's Republican governor, Bill Owens, signed major land-use legislation in 2001 that established the state's Office of Smart Growth, among other changes.

"We are the stewards of Colorado's future," Owens says on his Web site. "For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we must preserve Colorado's natural beauty and provide opportunities for future generations to pursue their dreams.

"Our task is nothing less than to protect that special Colorado way of life."

Sutton said he believes Denver is still a great place to live but that cities everywhere better get serious about managing growth.

"If the population just continues to grow, at some point the planning just can't deal with it anymore," he said. "Would you want to live in Mexico City? Thirty million people?"

As the cities keep reaching, Sutton keeps preaching -- and the American population booms into the countryside.

CNN's Jeff Green contributed to this report.

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