Portland is frequently viewed as as world leader (or world experiment, depending on your perspective) in planning restrictions on urban growth in an effort to combat sprawl. But Portland is far from the only city to have experimented with some form of Urban Growth Boundary. Many cities have followed Portland’s lead in creating limits to growth, as well as other cities whose restrictions on urban expansion exist for entirely different reasons. Here, I examine one city from each category: the nearby municipality of Eugene, Oregon, and the far-flung city of Tirana, Albania.
Established in 1982, Eugene (the second-largest city in Oregon) was relatively quick to follow Portland in establishing an Urban Growth Boundary to regulate expansion. In the first months of 2015, however, proposals have arisen to expand Eugene’s Urban Growth Boundary, despite protest from fervent anti-sprawl advocates. Policy surrounding Eugene’s boundary allows for modest expansions of the UGB for three land use purposes: employment, parks, and schools. The current plan for expansion encompasses all three. Drafted by a as part of a 20-year plan by an effort called Envision Eugene, the plan to expand the boundary by 924 acres to the northwest of the city and 35 acres in the Santa Clara area is slated to break new ground for “big business development,” although the plan also allocates land for future Bethel School District development, as well as a 222-acre park. Specifically, Eugene officials state that the new expansion will not be used for heavy industry.
Eugene currently has a low population density—3,570 people per square mile, compared to Portland’s 4,375. This makes Eugene’s endorsement of urban expansion stand in stark contrast to Portland’s clear preference for meeting increased demand for industry and housing by re-developing existing area within the boundary, or “infilling,” as it is known in the planning discipline. Much of the criticism for expansion, though, is based on the fact that the proposed expansion would come at the expense of existing prime farmland. The Willamette Valley is known for it’s fertile soils, and opponents of expansion cite the notion of local food security as reason to reconsider this plan.
Across the atlantic, Albania’s capital and largest city of Tirana established its urban controls under the political transition from communism to a representative democratic republic. Under communism, Tirana was a compact city of 225,000, with two-thirds of it’s 3.2 million citizens living in rural areas. At this time, most property was owned by the state. When the communist state collapsed, however, citizens immediately began to migrate to urban areas. Private property laws passed in 1991, creating a construction boom and massive expansion of private enterprise. In addition, households began to import automobiles at high rates, increasing mobility and creating massive congestion. By 1999, just eight years later, Tirana’s population had nearly tripled, and the land area of the city had increased by five times.
Under these pressures, the new government of Tirana established a “Yellow Line” system, which marked the official boundary of the city. This system was meant, like most UGBs, to restrict outward expansion and prevent sprawl. However, the system was poorly delineated and even more poorly enforced. Add to this the fact that infrastructure and housing development had not kept pace with the city’s industrial expansion, and squatter settlements developed surrounding the city. Over time, given innovations in transportation and construction technology, many of these settlements developed into suburbs with stores, warehouses, and repair yards. Although city administration had not intended to, the situation that was created with a poorly-structured UGB is analogous to the situation where the UGB is allowed to expand in a near-unrestricted manner.
A common criticism of UGB policy asks what use an Urban Growth Boundary is if it can be expanded at will. Is a boundary that can be expanded even a boundary to begin with? From an economic perspective, however, such a mutable boundary may be better than a rigid one. The economic logic is as follows: If the presence of a UGB creates an additional barrier to development outside of the boundary, the cost of development is higher outside the boundary than it is inside, holding all other factors constant. Because the cost is higher, it will only be worthwhile to pursue development outside the boundary if the benefit of this development is sufficiently high. This goes two ways— the benefit to the developer must be high enough for them to go through with the process of seeking exemption from the UGB, and the benefit to the city must be high enough for policymakers to allow it. For this theoretical model to actually be the case, however, it is necessary that Urban Growth Boundary policy (and associated enforcement) be sufficiently stringent that it acts as a real barrier. It becomes exceedingly important, then, to ask whether any given UGB policy accomplishes this.
1. “Council Endorses Expansion”, The Register Guard. http://registerguard.com/rg/news/local/32701205-75/eugene-council-endorses-northwest-expansion.html.csp
2. “UGB Expansion Analysis”, City of Eugene. https://www.eugene-or.gov/index.aspx?NID=774
3. “City of Eugene May Expand Urban Growth Boundary”, http://www.eugeneweekly.com/20150108/news-briefs/city-eugene-may-expand-urban-growth-boundary
4. Felstehausen, Herman. 1999. “Urban Growth and Land Use Changes in Tirana, Albania: With Cases Describing Urban Land Claims.” http://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/21921/28_wp31.pdf.