You Can’t Spell UGB Without Arithmetic

Academic controversies have a certain rhythm to their popularity. When new ideas are offered, many of us line up in support because we like what’s shiny and new. There’s nothing quite like that “new idea smell.” Once the novelty wears off and the idea becomes familiar, we forget about it until somebody offers a counterpoint, often packaged as the new new idea.

So it has been with the education industry’s recent infatuation with STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. We need to train more engineers, so Google and Facebook can hire more Americans.

Now comes the backlash, aiming to stem the STEM tide. As Eugene teacher Dave Sheehan wrote in last paper’s Sunday Commentary section, “By the eighth grade, 90 percent of us have learned just about as much math as we’re ever going to use in our lives.”

Sheehan is undoubtedly correct about what we’ve learned. I’m more concerned about what we’ve forgotten.

Portland State University’s Population Research Center recently released their projections for our area’s population growth. They are projecting that Eugene will add 40,000 new residents by 2035, to our current population of 185,000. Veneta is projected to add 2,500 people over the same time period to its current base of 5,200.

If those estimates are correct, Veneta will grow at twice the pace of Eugene over the next 20 years. And so, this newspaper’s recent headline on Page One was technically correct: “Big cities outpaced by small towns.” But that’s different than winning the race.

Rate of expansion, in this case, is as interesting as it is meaningless for how we live our lives. The raw number of people matters, because those people compete for our jobs or become our customers or get in line ahead of us at the grocery store. The percentage of people arriving just sits on a spreadsheet and stays there.

Let’s not confuse the rate of expansion with the actual number of people settling in each town. That’s like confusing the Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player awards.

Wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd wasn’t the Ducks’ best football player last season; quarterback Marcus Mariota was. Mariota was quite a bit better in 2014 than he was in 2013, but Lloyd was infinitely better in 2014 than the previous year, when he was playing basketball.

Now back to PSU’s growth predictions.

The pace of growth is calculated by dividing the number of new people in each town (the numerator) by the number of people already living there (the denominator). Yes, Veneta is projected to grow twice as fast as Eugene. No, Veneta is not projected to add twice as many people as Eugene.

In fact, I ran the numbers. If the two cities’ growth rates continue forever at PSU’s estimates, Veneta will indeed begin adding more residents than Eugene — in 364 years! So it’ll be a while before Eugene is actually losing the foot race to Veneta.

This is not a misunderstanding without consequence. Eugene is currently wrestling with whether and how to expand its Urban Growth Boundary. It’s not uncommon to hear people claim, “If we don’t make more room for them in Eugene, all those people will just go buy homes in Veneta.”

If by “all” they mean “most,” they are referring to the year 2378. If by “all” they mean “some,” that’s always been true. Here’s what’s true right now. For every person who settles in Veneta, 16 other people choose Eugene.

Yes, it’s true that Veneta currently offers less expensive housing, but that won’t stay true forever. Local roads eventually will become congested. Sewer systems will reach capacity. Expanding Veneta’s capacity will someday become expensive, forcing taxes up or quality of life down. Either way, expansion slows.

As an architect once told me, “Urban planning would be a fun hobby, but you’d have to live 200 years to get any satisfaction from it.”

I’m not saying Eugene should or shouldn’t expand its Urban Growth Boundary. I’m saying we should remember whatever math we learned in eighth grade and use it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs