In a recent piece in the Blue Review, our insightful Community and Regional Planning Department Chair Jaap Vos presents the understudied concept of time as it relates to the issue of city planning. Vos nicely extends the concept presented by LDS temple designer Bradford Houston, who argued that good cities provide residents with time. Vos finds the argument intriguing especially juxtaposed against the planner’s notion of maximizing efficiency within the city. While that represents a mechanistic notion of city planning, indeed efficiency permeates many of the planner’s tasks. As Vos describes, “. . . we planners think about buildings, streets and economic development. We ignore the fact that the city is not just an economic engine; it is the place where we live, eat, drink, walk, listen to music or just hang around.” Following that analysis, Vos admonishes city planners: “we ignore the city’s rhythm, its people and its notions of time at our own peril.” What Vos conveys here is the message that we should build a city around the inherent rhythms of its culture, people and institutions. I argue that there is a flipside to this notion: be aware that your city’s rhythm has costs.
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A newcomer to Boise, Vos demonstrates that he gets it already. “We linger. We hang out. We extend the day downtown in local restaurants, listen to local bands, attend shows and free concerts and festivals,” he writes. Boise is full of “cyclists, unhelmeted and off-lane; cafes full of laptops and meetings; noon-hour and any-hour exercisers.” Put more concisely, Boise is the lackadaisical city. And that is a symptom of a city that has never feared economic privation, one that has almost quite literally lurched from one gold rush to the next. Because Boiseans have never had to face fear, this “out-of-doors, out-of-the-rat-race culture” that Vos describes has taken hold, and taken root. This lack of a sense of urgency among residents of the city extends to business, political and non-profit leaders charged with navigating a path out of economic malaise – one that isn’t simply disguised by the city’s appearance on top ten lists.This post is a response to Jaap Vos’ essay for TBR 3, “Making Time in Boise.”
The Boise Basin has variously existed as a fertile homeland for Native American settlement, military encampment, fur trade route and mining supply post. It has always existed as the chief urban center of Idaho, predating the establishment of the state by nearly three decades. At the turn of the last century the Boise Basin started its modern day boom following the passage of the 1902 Reclamation Act. The irrigated valley supported entrepreneurs like J.R. Simplot who grew wealthy on war contracts and parlayed that fortune into melding food production and science, culminating in the first freeze dried French fry. The 1960s and 70s saw growth of native powerhouses – Simplot, Albertsons, Boise Cascade, Trus Joist, Ore-Ida, and of course Morrison-Knudsen. Around this time too, the Parkinsons developed this business called Micron, and the Valley attracted a huge HP facility. The 1990s and 2000s were boom-boom-boom everywhere you looked. Housing, construction, health care and retail created the appearance of permanent prosperity. Then in 2007 it finally came to a halt for everyone. But again, we didn’t worry, and haven’t worried since. For Boise, the next boom is always just around the corner.
Economic developers here point to the 50 top-ten lists on which the City has appeared since 2008 – pretty impressive since that’s about near the trough of the Great Recession. But a more realistic appraisal of the current condition here renders those lists meaningless. Morrison-Knudsen has twice sold, and San Francisco-based parent URS continues paring down staff in Boise. Ore-Ida has long since sold to Pittsburgh-based Heinz which Warren Buffet recently subsumed. Trus Joist is gone, bought by Weyerhauser. Only Simplot and Albertsons remain, Albertsons a particular bright spot in the pall cast by the loss of local capital and white-collar jobs.
On the more recent front, North Dakota-based Corwin Motors purchased the venerable Dan Wiebold Ford in Nampa. The remnant “Boise, Inc.” – now exists in jeopardy as its sale to Packaging Corp. occurred to shore up the new parent company’s production operations. Bank of America, which ironically began as a provider of banking services to disenfranchised Italian immigrants in the Bay Area, has itself disenfranchised Boise, selling off its retail banking operations to Washington Federal. Key Bank too, recently moved its local management operations to Denver.
On the quantitative side, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that in 2012, the Boise metro area grew just 2.1 percent over the prior year. The nation’s 381 metros averaged growth of 2.5 percent. Idaho’s five other metropolitan areas showed either no growth or worse – their economies are still contracting – leaving some in befuddling amazement.
In the September 23, 2013 edition of the Idaho Statesman, one Idaho official wondered aloud why a preponderance of 2012 Idaho high school graduates left the state for colleges and universities in the Bay Area? Could it be that with 7.4 percent growth in 2012, it’s the fastest growing metro economy in the country? On a business trip to Orange County, California a couple years back, my wife’s colleagues there chartered a helicopter to fly them to a meeting just a few miles away in South Los Angeles County. They couldn’t waste time in traffic. In Seattle, another of the nation’s fastest growing metro areas, residents measure distance in time not miles, the 10-mile distance between Seattle and Bellevue being irrelevant for planning purposes.
For some – apparently first and foremost the Boiseans Dr. Vos so eloquently describes – the rat race that is Seattle, Southern California and the Bay Area – is simply too much to bear. We’re content to “look forward to Bogus Basin opening for skiing, or the river for floating,” as Vos notes. But Boiseans face a real quandary for once in their 150-year history: waiting in line for Bogus to open also means waiting in the lengthening unemployment line.
As we watch our kids leave for jobs and colleges out of state, as we watch white-collar jobs disappear through sale and attrition and as we watch local capital disappear through sale and attrition, we finally must confront the cost of Boise’s pace. This is the Great Reset, and we haven’t yet pushed the button. If we’re going to “make time” in Boise in the future, it better be with some sense of urgency.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.