• Marc Johnson

The Livability of Rocky Mountain Cities


I had the pleasure of introducing Dan Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana and speaker of that state’s House of Representatives, at this week’s City Club of Boise luncheon.

The Kemmis speech and Q-A airs Saturday at 8:00 pm on KBSX (91.5) or you can catch he program on the City Club website.

Kemmis is the rare political leader who has successfully combined people and political skills with the ability to create new policy approaches – he’s a champion of civic engagement and collaboration – and then write about them with clarity and intelligence. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and the Environment.

As the Idaho Business Review noted, Kemmis made the case that the “real driver … of the new western economy has been the livability of our communities.”

Kemmis maintains that “livability is bigger, deeper and stronger as a driver than growth itself.”

He makes a pretty compelling case that cities like Salt Lake, Missoula, Boise and Denver have thrived, and will again, because they are essentially really decent places to live. (I could add a few more cities to the list – Portland, Bozeman, Coeur d’Alene, for instance.)

Think about Salt Lake’s good and getting better transit system, Missoula’s great parks and open space, Boise’s foothills and marvelous parks and greenbelt, and Denver’s revitalized downtown (and the Colorado Rockies).

As our region struggles to climb out of a deep recession, Dan Kemmis would remind us to focus on the basics of what makes cities great – intellectual infrastructue (libraries, for instance), open space, parks and outstanding recreational opportunities, ease of movement, and a culture of civic engagement.

I spent some time with a friend from the east coast recently. His business will allow him to live anywhere he likes and he and his bride spent a few days in Boise assessing the city as a potential new home. Searching for an alternative to the old rat race of long commutes and no sense of community, smart folks look West and have for ever. Like all young parents, they want good schools and a good environmental for the kids. I wasn’t selling paradise and I didn’t need to. Boise – and other good cities in the West – tends to sell themselves on the basis of “livability.”

Dan Kemmis is right. Livability, quality of life, whatever you call it, is an economic driver. The real challenge is not to screw it up or undervalue what we have and, perhaps too often, take for granted.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson