by Carolyn Chase


n yet another diagnosis of our regional dysfunctional relationship with growth, Deputy Mayor Byron Wear noted in a recent commentary that, "We must start to look at air and rail transportation facilities as part of an overall system. We've got to look at the sum, not just the parts," and concluded that, yes folks, "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." Like most truisms that fly well as clever observations, translating them into political change is quite a different matter.

It seems that just about every facility for handling the movement of goods, planes and cars can foresee the day when they cannot accommodate their projected growth in demand. These are heady days indeed. Wear noted: "Now we're faced with a definitive study which says we may choke on that growth." Along the same lines public disgust at regional transportation infrastructure continues to rise with increasing traffic congestion. Continuing the metaphorical descent, I'd like to add a slightly different diagnosis: regional constipation.

I'm not just referring to the transportation systems - that's just the symptom-of-the-month. I'm referring to the parochial political paradigm that pits prosperity against people and planning. The culture of San Diego's political processes leads exactly to the 'parts are more important than the whole' kinds of outcomes that give us choking, congestion and constipation of systems being overwhelmed by growth. Then people move to protect their quality of life in ways that actually perpetuate the problems. We're all trapped in a vicious circle of unsustainable growth that is often referred to as "Los Angelization." How do you spell relief?

Donella Meadows, director of the Sustainability Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College explains our situation: "When something keeps happening that no one much likes, and it happens in many different places, and it goes on happening despite all kinds of measures intended to stop it, and we all do things -- shop at the malls, move our families further out of town -- that contribute to the mess, though we know we're contributing to the mess, then we don't have a simple policy problem, we have a system dysfunction. If we want to fix it, not only do we have to do things differently, we have to think differently, so differently that we create a different system. Tinkering a bit - raising a tax here, throwing in a subsidy there, downzoning here, buying open space there - is not enough."

Such tinkering, like that currently being contemplated for Lindbergh Field, offers poor and expensive alternatives that don't really address the problems and continue the same bad paradigm of increasing impacts on neighbors under the guise of progress.

What is really needed is the leadership, an open sensitive approach, and the kind of serious coalition building that could actually deliver supportable regional decisions and facilities where "the whole" really could be "greater than the sum of its parts."

That kind of holism does not happen by accident. You have to actually take the parts and the whole of the system into account as the decisions are being made. This means listening to the "parts" and integrating their concerns properly into the whole. Instead, we have leadership that tends to patronize the parts and push solutions without actually addressing peoples' real problems. Then people understandably will and should move to protect their quality of life and resist unacceptable impacts.

That old political truism "all politics is local" aligns well with the old Earth Day slogan, "think globally, act locally." In this case we need to be thinking regionally and acting locally. But people can't or don't really think regionally. Nor do we vote regionally. Impacts are localized. Benefits are regionalized and globalized. One group's economic necessity still can become a neighborhood's reduced quality of life.

It doesn't need to be that way. People simply should not have to live under flight paths or accept increased pollution and reduced safety margins. But the reality is that often people have to sue to be "made whole." Did the Navy listen to the citizens of Del Mar?

The Port's Master Plan will be worthwhile in telling us what Lindbergh Field can become, how long it can serve the region and what impacts an expansion could create. But even as Port staff -- commendably -- were listening to business and community input on the future of Lindbergh Field, the chair of the Port Commission announced that the two-runway concept was a done deal. Is the Port listening to the people of Point Loma? Can we really believe that the Lindbergh Field expansion is about anything other than the Port attempting to protect its parts regardless of other parts of the whole? Only when we seriously confront the limits of that site will a real regional solution be able to emerge.

While most San Diego boosters continue to pursue growth at all costs, the bigger context of limiting impacts is seldom deemed worthy of interest. Like most problems deemed too intractable to deal with, our natural tendency is to separate things into pieces. We then defend or promote those pieces with considerable disregard for the importance of connections and the whole.

It's as if our entire culture has not yet grappled with the fact that there are limits, combined with the irrefutable fact that people deserve to protect themselves. Without listening and dealing with the parts honestly, the whole never can be greater than the parts, because the parts are not truly respected as a part of the whole.

While some kinds of growth are inevitable in the short term, the nature of our finite world dictates that we must begin to plan for stable, sustainable communities that respect both people and the real physical and ecological limitations of our planet.

Sustainable community planning that is likely to lead to real solutions takes a longer-range perspective and asks the questions: How fast do we want to grow, and how big do we want to get? Communities that address these growth issues in a socially-responsible, pro-active manner will become better places to live. So far, the diagnosis for San Diego remains: choked, congested and constipated.