2020: Visions of Missoula

Five perspectives on what the Garden City should look like in 20 years

December 16, 1999

As we stand on the cusp of a new millennium, ‘tis the season for taking stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going. In the span of a mere 100 years, Missoula has transformed itself from a small agrarian village to a diverse and sprawling urban area that now serves as the hub of commerce, medicine, the arts, tourism, social services and education for much of western Montana.

And yet, as we watch our arbitrary odometer click over from 1999 to 2000, we must ask ourselves, are we pleased with the road we’re on? Better yet, do we know where we want it to take us?

More so than most cities, Missoula is a place where people make the time and effort to answer that question: The Office of Planning and Grants, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, City Council, the Mayor’s Office. But fresh voices yield fresh ideas. So, as we enter the new millennium, I interviewed five people whose voices were new to me (and probably to you) and asked them to share what they like about Missoula today, and what they want it to look like tomorrow. All live (or have lived) in Missoula for a significant portion of their lives.

Among them: a woman who owns and operates two businesses in Missoula, an artist and professor of visual arts from the University of Montana, a 13-year-old boy and girl from Rattlesnake School, and a professional planner who started his career building walkable communities nationwide by first spending 10 years walking around Missoula.

What follows is not a comprehensive plan, a compilation of demographic projections or a detailed analysis of Missoula’s needs for the 21st century. Instead, these are simply visions—wishful thinking, if you will. There is something powerful—some would say almost mystical—about sharing a collective vision with others, especially when people are working to solve common problems.

What is interesting to see from such diverse individuals are so many common, interwoven themes: the desire for fewer cars, more walking and biking trails, diversity, color, open places that are both physically and aesthetically pleasing, and designs and structures that are uniquely Missoula.

This is Missoula through their eyes, their visions, in their voices, edited only for space and clarity.

Creating Walkable Communities

On a chilly Saturday morning in early December, about 50 Missoula residents turned out for a presentation and walking “audit” of Missoula’s streets, led by Dan Burden, an internationally recognized expert on preventing sprawl and promoting smart growth. Burden, a former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the State of Florida, now runs an organization called Walkable Communities, advising communities on ways to redesign their streets and highways to make them safer, smarter, more functional and more beautiful.

Burden, a graduate of the University of Montana, lived in Missoula for 10 years, during which he relied almost exclusively on nonmotorized transportation (primarily his two feet) to get around. What follows are excerpts from his presentation:

“What I like to do in a walking audit is work through a different lens than most people get to use during a normal day in their own lives, and start to think of walking as something that is absolutely fundamental and basic to everything we do in life. ...

“Forget momentarily that the car has dominated all of the needs in our design thinking, because in the future we’re going to get back to the village. We’re going to realize that cars can’t move if all we do is try to meet the needs of cars. Every city in America is learning that you can’t design the city for the car. You’ve got to design it for its people, then you accommodate for the cars. What we’ve been doing is designing for cars and not accommodating people. ...

“In the last 15 years—and this is nationwide, it’s not just happening in Missoula—the population has grown a very small percentage. But the number of people who are now working has grown exponentially, and the numbers of people who have to get into their cars because of bad land-use decisions has really driven up the number of automobile-based trips.

“That’s most of what’s causing our auto travel. As people make these auto trips, they’re getting bothered by it all. So there’s this incredible demand for people to be able to walk and bicycle again. The nice thing about Missoula is that you can live in the city and never own a car. ...

“This is a real challenge, because Missoula is facing a turning point on all of its major streets: Orange, Russell, Reserve and so on. As we make the streets wider we make them less friendly, and we create huge rivers. ... It truly will destroy a community by making your streets wide without thinking about how you’re going to get the pedestrian across the street. ...

“This is the turning point. Every community has to reach that decision, whether or not they’re going to build their town for the cars or for themselves. And if they go for the cars, they’re going to kill the town. They’ve got to build the town for people and slow the traffic down in these urban centers and villages. There is no other choice.

“The whole point is, if we get back to where we minimize travel, our cities will work again. They’ll be more affordable and more functional and they’ll be more beautiful. What we really need is to associate with other human beings again.

“What has not been working in our country is all the isolation of businesses, isolation of housing, isolation of every activity. I would have to say that 50 percent of the people in these cars don’t need to be in their cars, except that we’ve made some bad decisions over time. ...

“We will see in the future most cities in America figuring that they have to get back to walkable-scale villages. My prediction 20 years from now is that Missoula will be made up of 20 or 30 very distinct neighborhood groups that are totally intact, where you wouldn’t have to drive your car more than once a week. You’d have a choice. Right now there are only a couple of really great neighborhoods where you have that choice. ...

“But don’t feel that you can solve these problems [just] with transportation. They have be solved with good, appropriate land-use decisions, facing the fact that re-densification is going to be important, that mixed use is going to be very critical, and that the engineering is just one more partner in solving the problem of access and mobility and so on. ...

“It’s happening in every region of America. Something happened where the pixie dust wore off and everyone is waking up and realizing that the destiny of their towns is really going to depend upon getting back to the town-meeting concept and people taking an active role. ...

“I’d say that 95 percent of our transportation decisions for the last 50 years were made with minimal input by the public. We can’t do that in the future. ... It’s got to be a whole community involvement if we’re going to have good highways. And I don’t mean just good highways for pedestrians and bicycles. I mean good highways for motorists and property owners, for safety and for property values. ... Missoula residents are waking up and realizing, if you want a good city, you’re going to have to deal with transportation collectively. ...”

“So think through your walk in terms of a young child, eight, nine, ten years old. Also think in terms of someone who’s 80 years old. Think of anyone with a disability. Once we try walking thinking of a young child, a senior and a person with a disability, all of a sudden we know how to design. ...

“Children can really build us a better future than most adults can. As long as we remember that, then the things we’ve forgotten will automatically be included. So, if our children have been left out of the picture up until now, it’s time to draw them back in.”

Missoula's Future Through Young Eyes

Fraiser Opel and Josh Hurd, both 13, are students at Rattlesnake School in Missoula. Two years ago, while in the sixth grade, Fraiser and Josh participated in “Future Problem Solvers,” an international competition held in Ann Arbor, Mich. Fraiser and Josh spoke about what they like and don’t like about Missoula today and what they want it to look like in 20 years.

Fraiser: “I really like the people aspect of Missoula and all the different types of people and the different things they do. It’s a multicultural city, I think. If we have lots of different kinds of people in the city, it helps people see other people’s point of view, and that can really affect the future.”

Josh: “I really wouldn’t want to see Missoula grow into a huge town, because it’s nice to have a little town, to know where everything is and to get around. ... The Bitterroot Valley is really growing quickly. I really like the mountains around Missoula, the huge panorama, and I really wouldn’t want to see the mountains covered with houses at all. It would be hard to imagine Mt. Sentinel or Mt. Jumbo as just a big hill with houses on it. And the smog, it’s kind of out of control. Some days, especially if there’s a forest fire around, it’s hard to see anything. My grandma can’t come here because the air’s so bad she can’t breathe it.”

Fraiser: “In the future, I hope that people have bikes and not get too lazy that they drive around in their cars all the time. I think it would be nice to have bike paths off the street more, so that you can get around and you don’t have to worry about the traffic and the cars. I think that would be better.”

Josh: “Summers usually I just bike downtown, but if you’re going to go around all day, the bus system is pretty nice. The only bad thing about it, though, is that it doesn’t [run late]. So then sometimes you spend the whole day at the university or at the mall, and you don’t have a ride home and have to have someone to pick you up. It would be nice to have the bus go a little later. Even with the new bike lanes, I’d rather take a side street that might take a little longer than going on the bigger streets. ... A better sidewalk system would be nice.”

Fraiser: “I think it would be cool for the busy streets like Malfunction Junction [if], in the future, you can get a subway system that instead of having it underground, it could be overhead, so that it wouldn’t cause any traffic jams and be a lot more organized.”

Josh: “Like a monorail, that would be really cool, to have it cruise around town. ...That would be really fast, too and it wouldn’t pollute that much because it’d be electric.”

Fraiser: “And if Missoula grows any more, which it probably will in 20 more years, you’d be able to prevent a lot of problems that happen in bigger cities.”

Josh: “In the future, probably a big part of Missoula’s economy will be people from the Bitterroot Valley coming up and commuting to work here. So having some type of system going from the Bitterroot up into Missoula would prevent a lot of accidents.”

On their favorite places:

Josh: “The university is cool. You feel safe there and there’s so much stuff to do at the UC. You’ve got games, you’ve got food, arcades, you’ve got everything you want in one building. Something like that is really cool.”

Fraiser: “That’s kind of like the mall. I think they should put something like that more centralized, too, because it’s way out there. Because sometimes if you want to go there and hang out, you can’t really because it’s too far away for a lot of people. But it could destroy the downtown aspect too.”

Josh: “It’s nice to have all the stores and movie theaters in one place but the traffic out there [on Reserve] is getting bad, and you’re getting these huge, huge companies coming in, and they’re knocking out the smaller businesses in town.”

Fraiser: “Those places [on Reserve Street] are ugly. There’s too much traffic, too much air pollution, there’s too many cars. I think we should have like a big Central Park like in New York. It’s OK if we had big buildings and everything, but a place for people to go for the afternoon.”

Josh: “Laws on the visual impact of building is important, so they look nice and should be appealing to the eye. Sometimes you go down there and see a new building and it has all these wacky colors that just stick out. It’s not that nice.”

Fraiser: “I think computers are really good and everything. They help us a lot, but with people shopping off the Internet and stuff ... I just think people are going to get lazy.”

The Future of Enterprise

Lynne Nelson, a longtime resident of Missoula, is owner and director of two Missoula-based businesses: Nelson Personnel, a temporary and permanent employee placement service, and Nelson-McKay and Associates, an Internet based executive search and consulting firm launched a year ago:

“I would love to see in 2020 Missoula take a look at bringing in high tech industry as well as some nice, clean manufacturing. We can have a really nice mix. Right now what we have is very difficult for people to make a living on, at $6 or $7 an hour. And the cost of living in Missoula is extremely high. We can have a mix and still maintain the quality of living that Missoula has to offer right now. ...

“I think Missoula is probably very passive in going out and attracting these types of industries. ... They do not make it attractive for businesses to stay in Missoula, let alone come here.

“You take Butte. There’s a lot of people that can say negative things about Butte, but they go out, they get those businesses, they make it very attractive for those businesses to want to go to Butte. Bozeman does the same thing. We watched manufacturing companies go to Bozeman because they’re making it attractive. They’re saying, ‘Come to us. This is what we can do for you.’

“It’s real elementary. If you have a manufacturing company and they’re paying people $10 to $15 an hour, that money is going to stay in the Missoula market and circulate maybe seven, eight times or more. If you’re paying people $6 or $ 7 an hour, that money is not going to circulate nearly as far. ...

“We’ve got something that other places don’t have. We have a beautiful place to live. We’ve got quality of living here, even though it’s a little harder to get in and out of Missoula via airplane. I’d love for the trains to come back.”

“What [our clients] are learning is that they’ve [gotten] used to doing business a certain way. All they had to do was put an ad in the paper and they would get all these resumes from qualified people who wanted jobs. And now they’re not getting that. ...

“People in general have become very mobile, very transient. ... People used to have a career, one company, one job. Right now the careers that people are looking for are for themselves. It’s not, ‘I’m going to go work for ABC company as my career.’ Now it’s ‘I’m my career.’ And so they want to work for this company for a year or two years and then they ask, what is going to benefit them? ... This is a hot issue right now in employment. ...

“Why is [this generation] so different even from five years ago? ... They are very, very capable of taking care of themselves. They do not like to be told what to do. They’re a creative bunch of people. And if you want to tap into that creativity and channel the energy of the people coming into the work force in the future, it would behoove you to know how their personalities work, and why they are the way they are, as opposed to trying to fit them into the mold of what the Boomers were. Because they can really elevate your businesses to new heights. ...

“Keep in mind, this group of people came from the Information Age. They have TV, they have computers. When they want to know something, they get it right now. ... It’s going to be interesting to see how employers figure out how to work with these people.

“I think the one thing that’s going to change in [the next 20 years] is that it’s all going to be on the Internet. These people don’t want to come to us. We’re going to have to go to them. ....

“Employers should not only not think about removing one thing from the benefits package. In fact, they’re going to have to start thinking about adding benefits. These people need to have benefits. They want flex time. ... They have absolutely no loyalty to the business. The business has no loyalty to them. ...

“I just love Missoula and I can’t thing of another place in the world that I’d like to live. I just hope that whoever’s at the helm pays attention to what we have and doesn’t ruin it.”

Adopting an Aesthetic Vision

Bobby Tilton is an artist and professor in the Visual Arts Department at the University of Montana who has lived in Missoula since 1975. Among other things, she trains students to teach art to children. Bobby spoke about her aesthetic vision for Missoula:

“I think that the way this place is affects how people think and feel. Missoula has this amazing sense of scale. These mountains are huge and in some way they belittle us, which I think is important. I’m so happy that these big islands of space come jutting into our consciousness and come into our physical space. You can’t be in this town without looking up and seeing these amazing things.

“One thing that makes me sad about Missoula right now is that with Target and Costco, those places look like any other town that I drove through on the way to the East Coast. You could be anywhere when you’re out on [Reserve] Street. ... It’s disturbing to me that that area of town is the newest part of town and it’s the least like Missoula.

“Architecture is a form of sculpture, and Missoula does have interesting historical architecture. I’m a little disturbed that a lot of new buildings in the downtown area look alike. And that bothers me, because I like diversity. ... I really like the old alleyways and the funky old places, the Farmers’ Market, the big steam engine. ...

“I really don’t like a lot of what’s going on in terms of Missoula architecture in the valley. I think it’s really safe, and that’s a problem in terms of aesthetics. What happens is that it becomes homogeneous.

“I wish in planning we would take into account how that makes your city become like all other cities. I don’t think Missoula wants that. So you have to figure out a way to have those kinds of businesses here but without the same kind of strip mall thing that’s going on in all other towns. ...

“I like the older downtown. I’d almost want to turn back the hands of time. I think we’re all a little romantic about that. And yet, that isn’t the way things are now, and so you have to be a visionary about these new spaces as well and figure out what you want to do with them. ...

“I really like little neighborhood service areas and that’s both form and function. I think things function better when there are little Mom and Pop type groceries. I love Rattlesnake Gardens and these little burgs. ...

“I’ve been working with my students more in visual literacy, to be able to analyze static images, especially advertising. ... That always translates out into everything else, into your home, into your community.

“Just drive down Highway 93. Just purely compositionally, it’s a mess. It isn’t interesting. It’s just whatever is thrown up. ... There isn’t any large structural plan to make that nice visually, or to put any green space in there. That’s a place where things close up and you don’t go out there without your car. You feel really uncomfortable to be on Highway 93 without your car. That, again, dictates how people think and feel about their space. ...

“Again, back to function. When the railways were in town, businesses were close to where the wagons could haul the stuff. And then cars came in and malls were built. And so, that’s the way we always follow the function. And yet good planners say, let’s look at how this is going to affect us once it’s here.

“Now with the walking paths and biking paths, we’ve opened up a whole new artery for a different kind of movement, and I think that’s really important to this town. That kind of space invites exercise and invites people to get around in a different way. ...

“I guess another vision I’d love to see—and Missoula does a pretty good job with this—is all voices, young and old voices, different genders, different sexual preferences, different races, to be heard and honored. I’d like that to continue. ...

“I’d love to see lots and lots of venues for the arts to happen in neighborhoods. You can come into the University, you can come into the Art Museum and the performance spaces in the Wilma and Missoula Children’s Theatre. But wouldn’t it be great if schools were community centers in which there were things happening there that allowed people to use those buildings in creative ways, like writing workshops and that kind of thing? Because I think in the old days, our grandparents’ planning came from having a real strong sense of getting together and communicating and creating things, quilts and crafts or making music or even doing drama productions. ...

“Predictions are different than visions. They’re much more hopeful. Part of what you teach in the arts is to help kids create vision or think in that way. To imagine is to make an image, to envision. And yet a lot of the things that are envisioned are the things that come to be.”

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