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A really smart way to grow

| Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006

Joel Kotkin saw a lot more of Pennsylvania's empty countryside than he wanted to last week.

But his 250-mile car ride from Wilkes-Barre to the Smart Growth Partnership of Westmoreland County's conference near Greensburg on Wednesday morning was not a waste of time.

Kotkin learned firsthand how big, beautiful and unpeopled the Keystone State is. And he realized that Pennsylvania could probably use about 5 million more residents.

Five million extra Pennsylvanians• Who wants them• Where would they live• And why would they want to migrate to an overtaxed, over-regulated state whose tired economy and aging population have been stalled for decades?

Kotkin, an internationally renowned city expert, author and veteran guru of global economic, social and political trends, may live in Los Angeles but he's not crazy. As he wrote in a Wall Street Journal commentary on Tuesday, by 2050 there probably will be 100 million more Americans dispersed and sprawled among us.

If Pennsylvania got its act together and figured out how to market its natural and man-made assets, Kotkin figures our state could someday attract -- and benefit greatly from -- 5 million new immigrants, foreign and domestic.

Most of them would live, work and play in the suburbs, where, despite all the anti-suburb talk and the media hype you hear about people moving into center cities, a majority of Americans now choose to dwell.

As Kotkin told about 130 folks attending the Smart Growth Partnership's annual "summit," like it or not, most families of all races, ethnicities and income levels still want their own house, backyard and leafy patch of privacy in the 'burbs.

Kotkin is a heretic among the community planners, academics and developers who dominate the "smart growth" and "new urbanist" movements. These green elites -- "gentry socialists," Kotkin calls them -- generally hate suburbs, loathe cars and want everyone else but them to live in densely populated cities and ride public transit.

Kotkin doesn't hate cars. What's more, he believes suburban sprawl is not a modern, made-in-America evil but a historical, global and natural trait of humans that we better get used to and deal rationally with, not try to thwart with government planning schemes.

He believes in green belts and public transportation. But he prefers bus rapid-transit systems that function like efficient public utilities for the people who need really them, not much-costlier light-rail systems, which he considers throwbacks to the late 19th century for the middle class.

Kotkin might seem like a cruel choice to address a smart growth conference. But Alexander Graziani, the Westmoreland group's executive director, said he deliberately chose Kotkin because his market-based and reality-based ideas represent "the goals that our partnership tries to strive for."

Graziani said his smart growth group is not stereotypical. "This is a suburban county," he said Wednesday. "We recognize that maybe some of the other smart-growth groups may emphasize mass transit and higher densities. We're not going to be doing that in Westmoreland County.

"We like our automobiles, our single-family homes, our great schools and our neighborhoods. We are different. We're not Allegheny County. We behave differently."

It's exactly that kind of enlightened thinking that Kotkin would argue might someday make Pennsylvania a place for millions of families to move to, not from.

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