Opinion Columns & Blogs

Will the Treasure Valley look like Mesa, Arizona? Probably, if we do nothing to prevent it

The Treasure Valley has tried to come up with a plan to prevent sprawl and protect open spaces for years. So how did we get here?

When the Boise area started to grow in the 1970s, many planners hoped the region might be able to implement policies that would keep it from making the same mistakes past cities had: consuming farmland, sprawling out, increasing traffic. We failed.
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When the Boise area started to grow in the 1970s, many planners hoped the region might be able to implement policies that would keep it from making the same mistakes past cities had: consuming farmland, sprawling out, increasing traffic. We failed.

If you think Boise is bursting at the seams now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Yes, Boise is one of the fastest-growing cities, if not the fastest-growing city, in the country.

But at 230,000 people, Boise barely cracks the top 100 largest cities in the country. We have fewer people than Buffalo (252,000) and fewer people than even Toledo, Ohio (No. 78 with 275,000 people), and remember what John Denver had to say about Toledo, Ohio.

The top 44 cities in the United States have at least twice Boise’s population, including Minneapolis, Omaha and Colorado Springs. Heck, even Mesa, Arizona, essentially a suburb of Phoenix, weighs in at 503,000 people.

In other words, we still have a long way to go before we could consider ourselves a big city.

Overall, Idaho’s population has grown 12 percent since 2010, a total of 186,551 people, according to a Statesman story last year. Officials estimate that Idaho could break 2 million residents by 2025.

Despite those numbers, Idaho remains 39th in the country in terms of total numeric population. By sheer numbers, some states added 10 times as many people as Idaho did between 2017 and 2018. Texas topped the list of states in numeric growth, adding 379,128 people. Florida followed with 322,518 additions.

Mesa added 64,578 residents since the 2010 Census. Essentially, in nine years, Mesa added more residents than the number of people who currently live in the city of Caldwell.

So when you’re talking about growth, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Speaking of Mesa, I am reminded of the time, several years ago, before the Great Recession, when I was at a planning session about growth north of Kuna, and I asked Kuna’s planning director, “So what are we doing to make sure we don’t become another Mesa, Arizona?”

He was taken aback, look surprised and said, “We are planning TO become another Mesa, Arizona.”

I’ve been to Mesa several times, and let me just say, personally, I hope we don’t become another Mesa. Sure, there are some great things about living there, and there are some nice parts to visit, but there is something soul-crushing about driving mile after mile after mile down nondescript five-lane roads, past acre upon acre of nondescript subdivisions, broken up only by the occasional Family Dollar store and QT gas station.

So here’s the deal: Even though it seems like there’s no turning back for Boise’s growth, we are only getting started.

It’s not too late to make sure we grow in a way that we will like in 20 or 30 years. I firmly believe that if we don’t make a concerted effort to shape growth in a deliberative, thoughtful, smart manner, we most certainly will look like Mesa in the future.

For me, the big, overarching question is, “What are we going to look like?” Are we going to look more like Salt Lake City? Are we going to look more like Portland? How about Amsterdam? Or Copenhagen?

If you look at cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Tokyo that are already built up and are looking for opportunities to “do over” (London opening a new underground east-west rail line; Chicago and New York reclaiming and repurposing old industrial parts of town), Boise looks like a veritable blank slate. If we do nothing now, 20 years from now, simple tasks such as creating bus lanes or even the downtown streetcar circulator will become Herculean tasks. Look at Boston’s Big Dig or the Bay Area’s effort to finally get BART to ring around the Bay.

Idaho Statesman reporter Kate Talerico, who is becoming an expert on the issue of growth in the Treasure Valley, has launched a series called “Our Changing Valley,” which is exploring the promising policies that could offer solutions to our growing pains.

On Sunday, she wrote an in-depth article looking at the history of attempts at regional government and planning locally.

She also asked for your feedback, your solutions, what you think elected officials should do about managing growth. You can write in and share your opinion to editorial@idahostatesman.com.

Coming up in Sunday’s Idaho Statesman, we’ll share some of your responses, with the goal of sparking a community discussion about the future of the Treasure Valley.

In the meantime, if you have story ideas, tips or questions, reach out to Kate at ktalerico@idahostatesman.com.

Scott McIntosh is the Opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.


What is this column all about?

This column shares the personal opinions of Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh on current topics and issues in the Treasure Valley, in Idaho and nationally. It represents one person’s opinion and is intended to spur a conversation and solicit others’ opinions on the subject. It is intended to be part of an ongoing civil discussion with the ultimate goal of providing solutions to community problems and making this a better place to live, work and play. Readers are encouraged to express their thoughts by submitting a letter to the editor. Click on “Submit a letter or opinion” at idahostatesman.com/opinion.

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Always full of opinions and tolerant of others, Scott McIntosh is the opinions editor for the Idaho Statesman. He has won dozens of state and national awards, including Best Editorial from the Idaho Press Club for 2017.