downtownboise_640Late last week after having a discussion with a former boss of mine about planning the idea of this post came to me.  A quick recap of the conversation is as follows. My former boss argued that the Idaho legislature is impairing cities from operating.  I asked how and after the back and forth it became clear to me that he considers urban and suburban to be the same thing.  Truth be told they are vastly different.  Ask a person in Eagle if they consider their policy interests to be the same as Boise and I bet he/she says no.

There are numerous reasons why urban is not suburban and vice-versa.  First off, the interests of urban and suburban residents are different simply by where they live.  For example, consider the issue of transportation.  If you live in Eagle and commute to Boise your main concern with transportation is having a decent freeway system or a transit system.  If you live in and work in Boise your transportation concerns might focus on more bike lanes, a better transit system or the latest idea, a light rail tram system.

Some overlap on the issues urban and suburban residents care about do exist.  Both worry about issues such as the cost of living, development, etc.  But within these broad concepts will be differences, particularly on ideology and the issues.  Idaho is notable for not just being a Republican state but also for having conservative suburbs that oftentimes side with rural areas in their voting habits.  Many states in the West such as Colorado and Nevada have seen the opposite; suburban voters have moved away from rural residents voting preferences and now side with urban residents.  It is true rural residents care more about social issues than the suburbs.  Oftentimes Republican legislators have been at odds over social issues for this very reason. Still, many suburban voters care about the same issues as rural residents: taxes, spending, etc. and often disagree with urban residents preferences on these issues.

From a planner’s mindset (such as my former boss) it is not hard to see why urban and suburban would be considered the same.  After-all, it is easier to conceptualize and plan one thing instead of two.  But it also does reflect a worrying mindset among urban planners that disregards the interests and concerns of suburban residents.  Consider the differing development habits of Boise and outlying suburbs.  Disclaimer: I am doing a Boise downtown development project for my work so this is where most of this information comes from.

Boise’s downtown development since 1985 (fear of the Great Mall leaving) has been marked by relative stability.  The Capital City Development Corp has worked hand in hand with the Boise City Council and Planning Development to focus on development.  Since the 2000’s (when the suburbs expanded significantly and Boise’s population began to stagnate) the focus has shifted to high rises and using vertical as well as horizontal space.  This is why Boise planners expressed disappointment with the new Whole Foods development and are unhappy with Trader Joe’s new store.  Both reflect a more suburban design focusing on using horizontal space.

The suburbs (Meridian, Eagle, Nampa, Caldwell, Star, Kuna, etc.) have simply developed outwards and not worried about vertical space.  Indeed if one drives down I-84 or Eagle Road, short of hotels, there are very few vertical highrises.  Downtown Boise sports far more.  City planners are far more concerned with urban sprawl whereas suburban planners do not show such a concern.

Perhaps an issue where suburban and urban planners agree is on livability but the way they achieve this goal is dramatically different.  The suburbs of Idaho stress a low tax, business friendly, low housing cost environment to lure in young families and entrepreneurs.  This low tax environment is often in conflict with providing a decent education system for said young families children.  In urban Boise livability really is not stressed on a tax and business friendly environment.  Boise does not go out of its way to scare off new businesses but its high property and local business taxes tend to drive businesses out of the downtown core. Its slow approval process for new development makes submission of development plans  a time-consuming endeavor.  In the same mold planners in Boise tend to view these higher taxes as a cost of livability. After-all it costs money to provide a top-tier education system,a downtown culture and numerous parks.

These differing visions are vast in scope and their implications.  Many older residents have fled Boise’s city limits for the lower tax suburbs while a younger, more diverse demographic has increasingly found its home in the city.  Unsurprising, this helps explain why urban Boise is like many other metropolitan cores in the West; younger, more diverse and far more Democratic.  Ideas like downtown development that stress a more mixed and nuanced message on taxes, education and spending are better suited for the younger demographic who are protecting less.  Unfortunately, it also means that Boise’s tax base tends to be small and its new taxes and fees fall heavily on a minority of home and business owners.

Now, this is not to say that urban and suburban residents in Boise do not agree on some things.  They certainly must.  Education is a major example.  But planners (such as my former boss) must understand the interests of suburban and urban residents in Idaho are far different.  These differences don’t just refer to physical location but also to their policy and ideological preferences.  Just look at the legislature this year and the number of suburban legislators who voted for concealed carry while not a single urban Boise legislator did so.

For a planner to be successful these differences must be recognized and analyzed lest we fall into the one size fits all idea that seems prevalent in planning.

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