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The Big Picture

Twenty-five years from now, 8.5 million people will live in a region stretching from Indian River County through the Florida Keys. Most will be Hispanic or African-American. Many of them will be very young or very old. Buildable land will be scarce, and water and transportation demands will be massive.

Planning for their future is the job of two regional planning councils, seven school systems, two water management districts, three transportation districts, six metropolitan planning organizations and nearly 100 local governments.

South Florida can no longer afford to rely on such a patchwork, says a team of researchers at Florida Atlantic University's Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions.

The center's recently compiled seven-county study of the demographic, economic and environmental trends that took place between 1990 and 2000 is an argument for the regional point of view.

Center Director James Murley says business leaders were the first to recognize the artificial nature of the government boundaries that overlay the region. The center borrowed from economic development officials in drawing its boundaries around Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Monroe, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.

The biggest challenges for the region, Murley says, are things that don't follow political boundaries, like transportation, water quality and affordable housing.

Among the problems identified in the study are a combination of rapid population growth, an inadequate supply of affordable housing and wage and job growth that have not kept up with the 23% increase in population over the past decade.

Such growth has nearly exhausted the supply of large tracts of buildable land. (Murley says Port St. Lucie will eventually overtake Fort Lauderdale as the region's second-most populated city because it still has large tracts of land available for development.)

Though there are promising developments on the horizon, such as the Scripps Research Institute campus in West Palm Beach, the study notes that the gap between rich and poor has widened over the past 10 years. While wages have not kept pace, the region's median home price, at $193,400, is significantly higher than the state and national average.

Big-picture planning is the only way south Florida can address such challenges, Murley says. But it won't be an easy sell.

"There are people in the Treasure Coast who don't think they have anything to do with us," says Murley from his office in Fort Lauderdale.