Regional Growth OK For Now

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — If the four-county West Michigan area grows as much this decade as it did over the last 10 years, one planner feels the way planning is done here will have to take on a more regional approach.

The KOMA region — Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties — grew by 16 percent from slightly less than 938,000 residents to just short of 1.09 million from 1990 to 2000, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures. That means the area grew by an average of 1.5 percent each year over the secade.

Andy Bowman, a former Gaines Township planner who is now the lead planner for the Grand Valley Metro Council, felt the growth was steady and the numbers weren’t alarming. But the raw figures aren’t as much of a concern to him as where the growth occurred. As a regional planner, Bowman is more interested in how the land was used.

“To planners, it’s the pattern of that growth that is much more important,” said Bowman. “We’re more interested in how the city was doing in its particular growth versus, say, the surrounding area around the city. It’s more important for us to see where the growth is going and what that might imply for us.”

As for Grand Rapids, the city grew by 4.6 percent from 189,126 residents to 197,800.

“We think that the marginal increase that the city had was a good thing. It certainly indicated that people aren’t completely emptying out of the city. In other words, there is actually a positive growth factor for the city of Grand Rapids proper,” said Bowman.

“We also saw that the growth that occurred in the outlying townships is a fairly good growth rate, “ he added. “And I guess what we have to do is to analyze where the growth has been going within those townships.”

For example, Bowman learned that 60 percent of the growth experienced by Alpine Township occurred in just two sections of the township, which grew by nearly 42 percent. For a planner, that result shows a density in the new population. It means the land is being used efficiently, which makes it easier to serve these areas with sewers, water and roads.

Although Bowman has a lot more growth pattern data to examine, the early findings tend to show that sprawl didn’t spread too badly across the region over the past decade. Certainly not the way it did in the Metro Detroit area. Instead of registering a gain like Grand Rapids did, Metro Detroit lost 7.5 percent of its population — while nearby Macomb Township registered a gain of 122 percent.

But the region’s rosy result could change if the population grows by another 16 percent over the next ten years. If that does happen, the four counties will have almost 1.27 million residents — a gain of nearly 180,000 people.

“I think if we sustain another ten-year period like we did in the last ten years — a steady, kind of optimistic growth pattern that spreads across all the townships — I think we’re clearly headed towards patterns which will result in something like the Detroit area,” said Bowman.

“Not to beat up Detroit, necessarily. But just to say that is the same kind of pattern that eventually led to five, maybe six, layers of townships that turned into cities in the Detroit area,” he added. “We may look at a pattern like that. The townships might not turn into cities, but certainly we’re going to be seeing an awful lot of population being sustained over a much broader geographic territory. That is a worry to us, at least as regional planners.”

So the bottom line is that the region needs to undertake some good, solid planning this decade if it wants to avoid becoming another sprawled-out metro area.

“Oh, yes, it’s critical at this point. Yes. Absolutely,” said Bowman. “In fact, as a regional planner, I feel that we need to find new ways of doing planning. The individual, kind of parochial planning isn’t going to lead us to any different result than we’ve seen in other cities over previous decades that have sustained those same growth levels. That is where I worry the most.”

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