Like most of Florida, the seven-county region of Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia counties is wrestling with growth. The region encompasses some 3 million citizens in 5,600 square miles of cities, suburbs, towns, lakes and coastline. There are more than 80 local governments, including the cities of Orlando, Daytona Beach, Melbourne, Titusville and Palm Bay. About 100,000 new residents have been arriving each year, and the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research projects that the region's population will reach 7 million by 2050.
I believe, in Yogi Berra fashion, that the region could become so crowded that 7 million people would never want to live there, but no mind: The state requires local governments to use the BEBR numbers to plan. And, regardless whether the region ends up home to fewer or more than 7 million, the need to plan is urgent.
The good news is that the region is planning -- taking one of the most collaborative, inclusive and sophisticated approaches to its future of any area in the state.
More than a year ago, myregion.org, the regional leadership network created by the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce, began an effort to get the public, the business community and elected officials to create a shared vision for how growth should proceed. The effort has a lead evangelist, Jacob Stuart, the head of the Orlando Regional Chamber, who combines full-throttle salesmanship with a visionary understanding of business's role in building community. And it has a lead professor, Phil Laurien, an experienced planner who's the executive director of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council. Having also worked as a developer, a manager for a production builder and a town manager, Laurien understands the growth dynamic from a range of perspectives.
The "How Shall We Grow?" project began with community input sessions that have involved more than 10,000 people. In the first round, participants became more aware of the region's challenges through an exercise in which they had to "place" an additional 3.5 million residents -- the projected growth -- onto maps.
The second round solicited ideas for how they would like the region to look with that additional population.
From thousands of citizens' and officials' input, four themes emerged, Laurien says. First, many didn't think the region should continue the current trend of low-density suburban development. Second, the region should preserve both environmentally sensitive lands and also green space at its urban edges to define the boundaries of individual communities. Third, the region should promote the growth of centers where people can work, live and play. Fourth, the centers needed to be connected with transit.
Working with some cutting-edge simulation software from the University of Florida, Laurien and his staff developed four broadly drawn pictures of how the region could look in 2050, based on the four themes. The first portrays a continuation of the present growth trend. In a second scenario, the preservation of green areas is maximized. A third choice put a priority on the development of live-work-play city centers. The fourth focuses on the creation of transportation corridors, with
high-density development encouraged along the transportation lines.
Each scenario indicated the percentages of developed and conserved land that resulted in that scenario. Each scenario also described its implications: The "centers" option, for example, requires the most new road construction, while the "corridors" option produces the most people living in multi-family housing. The "green areas" option leaves the least money available for transportation alternatives. (More details are available at myregion.org.)
Myregion.org then asked citizens and their leaders to express their preferences by completing a survey (available in both English and Spanish) either online or on a paper form. More than 7,800 survey responses were carefully vetted to ensure that no groups or individuals had stuffed the ballot box. The "centers" option was the preferred choice of 38% of the respondents, with 31% preferring "corridors" and 27% "green areas." Some 86% of respondents indicated the present trend as their least preferred option. It's clear, Laurien says, that "people don't want to stay on the road we're now on."
In August, after more town meetings and discussions, How Shall We Grow? will roll out a scenario that represents a synthesis of the survey results. Along with it will come two brief documents -- which representatives of all 86 local governments in the region will sign -- that will embody the vision and its key themes.
At that point, those local officials have to begin deciding whether to actually take it all seriously -- as they consider the individual zoning and other incremental land-use decisions that collectively will either turn the vision into reality or leave it a pipe dream. And it will be up to the region's citizens and the media to monitor them. Stuart acknowledges, "I can't make anybody do anything. I have no jurisdiction except for the jurisdiction of compelling ideas."
Both the preacher and the professor are optimistic. The effort, Stuart says, gives the region "the tools to have a thoughtful conversation" about growth. Given the content, "the people will make the right decision," says Stuart. "We're pushing content. It's the new civics. We're not telling -- we're asking."
Laurien calls How Shall We Grow? "the Super Bowl of planning. It's the highest and best use of public and private resources that's going on in the planning field in the country." Laurien hopefully relates anecdotes of after-meeting conversations among officials from different jurisdictions talking about possibilities for collaborating -- "the little adjustments that produce big adjustments years from now." The region's growth, he says, is like a battleship that can't turn on a dime but can maneuver effectively a nudge at a time. "We've got voters telling us we need to give that battleship a nudge. That's what it's all about," he says.