In The New York Times last month, Timothy Egan triumphantly described the “New West Renaissance,” a utopian narrative of an urbanized society surrounded by vast, diverse wilderness. For planning professionals, environmentalists, land use experts and their peers, the longstanding pro-urban, anti-sprawl argument – concentrate people to maximize open space – represents a functional approach to sharing resources and services while simultaneously safeguarding the existing landscape.
But Egan goes a step further, identifying a reflexive relationship between the contemporary cities and their environs that defines the American West: “the urban and the wild have produced a unique lifestyle – a new-century ecosystem. Each depends on the other.” While the pairing, per Egan’s description, appears to form naturally, consider an alternative evolution.
According to Forbes, 8 of the country’s 20 fastest-growing cities, in terms of population and economy, are in the West. From Phoenix to Salt Lake City, Denver to Boise, Seattle to San Jose, and onward to lower profile Ogden and Provo, the iconic images of these cities portray mountains rivaling office towers and/or residential high-rises, authentic panoramas of regional landscapes punctuated by settlement as Egan describes.
But what sustains these cities (and their peers) is that they have purposefully made “lifestyle” part of their economic development agendas. Job growth through diversification of the economy is considered simultaneously with transportation initiatives, housing opportunities and yes, proximity to the outdoors. These attributes increasingly resonate with a variety of generational subsets, from Millennials to Gen Xers to Baby Boomers, who have all refocused post-downturn in their own ways to place greater emphasis on quality of life and experience. From the San Franciscan who commutes to Silicon Valley to the weekend backcountry explorer in Denver, the day-to-day focus on place takes on a new narrative – lifestyle is defined by what one does after work, not for work.