Zone, Zone On The Range

Bringing Smart Growth to Wyoming

Story by Nathan C. Martin

Photography by Akasha Rabut

Published on

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

Jana McCarron knew she was moving to energy country. It was not so much the industrial-wholesale fueling station a few blocks from downtown that struck her as odd shortly upon her arrival in Rock Springs, Wyo. — it was its placement next to a tiny house, whose windows were predictably shut. Tanker trucks rumbled in and out, down D Street toward city hall or in the opposite direction, toward the desert, the scent of petrol shifting this way and that with the wind.

McCarron moved to Rock Springs in June 2006 from Modesto, a town of just over 200,000 in central California. Unlike thousands of others lured to southwest Wyoming around that time by a natural gas boom, McCarron came for romance — she had met a man from Rock Springs online whom she married, a junior high biology teacher known locally for his collection of snakes. McCarron, who had been public works administrator in Modesto, took a job as assistant city planner the following September and became Rock Springs’ sole city planner a year later, in the midst of a growth explosion.

“A lot of planners can work their whole careers and not do as many subdivisions as we were doing each year,” McCarron said. Her two-person team was processing around eight major subdivisions annually. The boom had added between 10,000 and 15,000 people to Rock Springs since the prior census, which had listed its population as 18,708. (By 2010, after the boom died down, the population had shrunk back to about 23,000.)

With its boomtown spurts of unplanned growth, roughneck culture and cowboy-esque commitment to individual property rights, McCarron’s new home could hardly more diametrically oppose the sleepy, orderly, liberal West Coast town in which she cut her planning teeth. The boom has slowed since the 2008 recession hit, and in the intervening years McCarron has begun to take steps to shape the future of Rock Springs’ built environment. This summer, after months of public input in the form of meetings and surveys, she hopes to unveil a master plan to replace the city’s current plan — which has remained substantially unchanged for 30 years, since the last time such a document was written. The new plan seeks to increase connectivity in the town’s somewhat baffling street configuration, encourage mixed commercial and residential use, spur infill, improve parks and facilitate downtown redevelopment. By using these smart-growth tactics to encourage the city to develop a more traditionally urban form, she hopes to reduce car dependency and prevent needless sprawl into the open desert.

But what might seem like intuitive, simple steps toward a more sustainable future can be hard to sell in the open spaces of the rural West.

“Rock Springs has a number of very real constraints that you cannot just wave away with bike lanes,” McCarron said.

These include rampant car culture, a perpetual boom-bust economy, general rejection of heavy-handed government, ambivalence toward collectively owned spaces, a legitimate desire for large residential lots and absent or out-of-date planning and zoning ordinances.

The traits are both causes and symptoms of Rock Springs’ historical disregard for planning, resulting in anomalies in the built environment far more severe than an oddly placed fuel station. Add an increasingly conservative local political climate — which happens to coincide with a nationwide right-wing movement against smart growth — and McCarron’s task appears as steep as the bluffs that helped discourage Rock Springs from building a street grid. But the Californian-cum-Wyomingite long ago rejected the notion that the obstacles she faces are the result of provincial backwardness or Tea Party libertarianism.

“It’s not because people aren’t forward-thinking or don’t care about the environment — the lifestyle is just different,” she said, speaking to me from her office in Rock Springs’ squat, brick city hall. “Smart growth needs to be customized for the culture. You can’t shoehorn a community into a smart-growth model.”

Wyoming is the least populated state in the country and its cities, including Rock Springs, conform to rural land use patterns.

If McCarron succeeds in implementing her plan, her work could function as an example for adapting smart growth in places where walkable streets are not necessarily on anyone’s must-have list. Her approach could prove that even in the country’s most car-centric and conservative corners, the built environment can be reshaped in ways that preserve open spaces and demand less fuel use. The likelihood of her success will hinge largely on her ability to navigate Wyoming’s distinct regional culture. Talking to her, it seems as though she has achieved a pretty firm grasp. When I mentioned that among the benefits of denser communities are cost-saving factors for taxpayers, such as shorter trips and corresponding lower fuel costs for school buses, she reminded me that most people in Rock Springs drive their children to school.

However, her master plan does include recommendations for the development of walking paths between neighborhoods and schools, which fits with Rock Springs’ history of trails. After all, the town’s earliest streets developed from footpaths miners would navigate by lamplight in the freezing predawn on their way from the camps to the mines. The degree to which she “understands” the town and its people might seem like a dubious quality to judge, but I consider myself qualified — only because Rock Springs is where I am from. Not long ago, I was walking a footpath to school there myself.

Selling Smart Growth in Gasland

On the drive into Rock Springs from the east on Interstate 80, a ridge of red-tan dirt and sagebrush flanks your right side, aloof in the tremendous sky. Scattered formations of sandstone run along its crest. To the left, railroad tracks run parallel to the highway in the same place the Union Pacific laid them in 1868 during the mad rush to connect the continent, when men put down six or seven miles of track a day and established lonesome outposts in the desert. Rock Springs was born from a fury for coal. It was inhabited by men, mostly from England, who worked mines that produced a mineral that, as Robert B. Rhode writes in his history of Rock Springs, “was jet black, with a glassy luster and occasional iridescent colors…a high-quality bituminous, nearly ideal for the railroad’s locomotives.”

Rock Springs survived the spasm of a century that followed and became the hub of Sweetwater County, which is larger than seven American states but has only six incorporated towns. The roughly 100 miles of rock, dirt and low-growing brush that lie between Rock Springs and its neighbors look something like images you’ve seen of Afghanistan, but perhaps flatter. Their emptiness is weird for the United States. At most points, signs of humanity are visible, but not humans, besides the drivers in their cars and trucks, racing in both directions on the interstate away from the middle of nowhere.

Wyoming’s vast landscapes provide opportunities for recreation and industry unique to the region. The same open spaces in which much of the Wyoming’s population goes hunting, fishing, camping and hiking have been instrumental to the state’s robust oil and gas, mining and ranching industries. Whether one is attracted to Wyoming for work or pleasure, open land is a singular draw. The state’s harsh eight- and nine-month winters help keep the population down. At around half a million, Wyoming is the least populated state in the country. Geographically, it is the ninth largest.

“Ways of life that Texas politicians fake for television still exist in Wyoming to a significant extent.”

Although the sheer size of its open spaces makes Wyoming distinct, disputes over its landscape boil down to “preserve versus use,” much like in many other places across the country. The conflict has recently played out nationwide in debates over city planning: In January, the Republican National Committee passed an official resolution whose ostensible purpose was to attack Agenda 21, an obscure United Nations provision that encourages countries to use fewer resources and conserve open land by steering development to already dense areas. The resolution states: “The United Nations Agenda 21 plan of radical so-called ‘sustainable development’ views the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms; all as destructive to the environment.” At heart, the RNC seemed to be saying that all places should operate like Rock Springs — an unplanned jumble where residents are still willing to protect private property with rifles and most homeowners have large lots with plenty of room for big trucks.

The large degree to which the Republican National Committee’s resolution against “so-called ‘sustainable development’” seems to jive with the values of Rock Springs residents comes as little surprise — Wyoming is one of the staunchest Republican strongholds in the nation. Sixty-five percent of its voters chose John McCain in 2008 — the second-largest percentage in the country, behind Oklahoma. Its two senators, governor and single representative are all Republican, as are strong majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Low taxes and limited government are perennial talking points, and the oil and gas industry’s widespread influence engenders disdain for environmental regulation. According to a 2001 poll, more people in Wyoming keep firearms around their homes than in any other state (59.7 percent), and boom economies make it easy to forget about the need for social aid programs — at least until they bust.

But the thing to remember is this: Rock Springs’ breed of conservatism is acutely rooted in its history, culture and geography. Ways of life that Texas politicians fake for television still exist in Wyoming to a significant extent. The grandparents of older Rock Springs natives lived in the honest-to-God Wild West. People at the polls today were bounced on the knees of people who lived in Rock Springs when Butch Cassidy holed up in town, hiding from the law. Rock Springs Mayor Carl Demshar’s mother was born in a town nearby that no longer exists, because the mine that provided nearly all of its jobs dried up. Today, the ghost town’s foundations provide dusty venues for bonfires and keg parties of area youth.

Sprawl and diffuse development in Wyoming is not the result of white flight or the rise of the suburbs, because there are no cities in Wyoming from which to flee — only five towns in Wyoming have a population of more than 20,000. While the state’s residents are predominantly conservative, they do not necessarily exist on the same homogenized ideological plane as much of the American right wing. The distinctiveness of Wyoming’s regional culture prevents its one-to-one agreement with a national conservative agenda, despite surface similarities with other red states that offer a completely different way of life. That is to say, there is breathing room between the Tea Party in Virginia or Florida and the actual lived experience of a Rock Springs conservative.

A Trailer in Every Yard

Jana McCarron has learned to live with the fact that Rock Springs’ politics, history and culture present impediments to her goals as a planner. She has butted heads with more than one resident and local official over her attempts to enact progressive development. She admits a bit of her ambition has been dashed.

“The style of living here is not supportive of the smart-growth model,” McCarron said. “It doesn’t make sense for me to fight every person who comes through my door, and I’m not going to do it. Maybe that’s me not being the best planner I can be, but you have to face reality.”

In facing this reality, the planner has ceded visions for shared common spaces in residential subdivisions, short driveways, alleys and, for the most part, multi-family residential units and small residential lots (though two apartment complexes have been built since she arrived, and more are planned). In two of the city’s subdivisions, McCarron has seen developers try to introduce these smart-growth concepts, before eventually reverting back to a more traditional model.

“I think it has to deal with the spirit of the West, which still very much exists here,” McCarron said. “There are still these ideas of the ‘Great Frontier,’ and part of that means individual property rights are very important. The city administration has to be careful. People don’t move to Wyoming because they want the government telling them what to do.”

Lee Hughes is a case in point. The Kansas native moved to Rock Springs in the late 1960s to raise a family after stints in the military and federal law enforcement. He initially took a job teaching high school, but has operated Rock Springs’ only current full-service auction company for the past 25 years, dealing primarily in estates.

Hughes and his wife live in the same one-story home they purchased in the late 1970s in White Mountain Village, a middle-class neighborhood that had recently been constructed as a master-planned subdivision, known in real estate lingo as a “planned unit development,” or PUD. At that time, the city was booming after the construction of a new power plant and the opening of several trona mines, and Hughes and his wife bought the neighborhood’s last available house. A few years later, Hughes and his neighbors organized to dissolve the homeowner’s association that governed the neighborhood, essentially nullifying the planned aspect of the planned unit development. It was among the first officially failed PUDs in the nation.

“Well, you know how people are around here,” Hughes told me when I asked whether it had been poor administration or something more ideological that had fueled opposition to the PUD. He described annoyance among his neighbors at the permission process required to build things like sheds and fences, and the eventual outright refusal by many to pay the $50 per-month homeowner’s association fees. The latter caused significant problems when unpaid fees prevented Village residents from producing clean titles when they went to sell their houses. The remedial services those fees were meant to provide, like snow clearance and lawn maintenance, were simply things that most Rock Springs residents would just as soon do themselves.

Hughes recently re-sided his house, and his front yard is next. But his landscaping efforts will not be an attempt to keep up with the Joneses — his next-door neighbors are using the patch of dirt that was once a front lawn as a parking space for their 16-foot four-wheeler trailer.

“If it had been California or New Mexico or Arizona, places where people have become acquainted to living right next to each other, folks would’ve adapted,” Hughes said. Instead, neighborhood residents organized. They agreed to sell a homeowner association-owned plot of undeveloped land adjacent to the neighborhood in order to pay to bring curbs, gutters and streets up to code. Then they surveyed and drew property lines, turned the shared spaces over to the city and kept their individual plots for themselves.

Hughes’ assumption that other parts of the country are kinder to developments that enforce density and shared resources is only somewhat right. While Rock Springs does seem to respond with harshness, it is not the only community to shut down initiatives that seek to push smart growth where it is not wanted. Suburban areas, especially, provide examples of residents rejecting projects that aim to decrease automobile dependence and rein in sprawl. Attempts to ease congestion with enhanced public transportation in suburban corridors in Maine and Florida were canceled this year after outcries from vocal citizens. In the 1990s, a regional land-use agency in the Portland area attempted to increase density in the suburban inner ring to correspond with the expansion of its light rail system. In 1996, after steadily decreasing enthusiasm for the light rail among suburbanites, voters in one of the Portland suburbs recalled its mayor and two council members who backed the densification plan against popular opinion.

New Urbanism for an Old City

The suburbs have never been a problem for Bryson Garbett, CEO of Utah-based Garbett Homes. He is the successful purveyor of master-planned communities with names like Summerlane at the District, TerraSol and Arbor Square at Highbury that pepper the sprawl in the Greater Salt Lake Area’s southern and western extremities. His company specializes in planned unit developments that feature a mix of town homes and single-family dwellings, grassy promenades and clubhouses with communal exercise and gathering spaces. In 2005, Garbett’s friend, who owned some land three hours away in Rock Springs, notified him of the housing shortage caused by the boom. Garbett took initiative and set plans in motion to develop Morningside at Rock Springs along the same lines as his master-planned Utah communities. Seven years later, he has completed the first of eight construction phases of Morningside, after going back and dramatically reshaping his plan to bring it into line with the will and desires of Rock Springs residents.

“If we had listened more to the city, we would have been better off,” Garbett told me recently from his office near the Utah state capitol building. He admitted to ignoring adamant warnings early on that insisted Morningside would likely fail, as had its planned predecessors. Doomsday predictions did not entirely come true, since Garbett will continue the project, but potential buyers in Rock Springs repeatedly insisted on larger lots than the 6,000 square-foot sections Garbett had begun to develop, and they overwhelmingly rejected the homeowner’s association fees meant to maintain the clubhouse and green spaces.

“We had multiple requests from clients who said they wanted space to park their RVs, have big yards and things like that,” Garbett said. “And no one wanted to pay the homeowner’s association fees, which is something I’ve never experienced.”

As the project moved forth, consumer demand forced Garbett to expand the lot sizes to 8,000 square feet and to scrap the homeowner’s association fees, along with the clubhouse they would have paid for. The first phase resulted in the construction of 40 units, 22 of which are town homes. After consideration, the remaining building phases of Morningside will culminate in 340 units, 80 percent of which will be single-family dwellings on large lots.

None of this surprised Carl Demshar, mayor of Rock Springs. Demshar served on the city council for six years prior to his mayoral election in 2010. He was among the city officials who had warned Garbett that his proposed PUD’s potential for success was slim. Demshar, a 65-year-old Rock Springs native, firmly supports McCarron and the major tenets of her upcoming master plan, especially the provisions that designate areas of new construction for mixed use and take steps to facilitate downtown redevelopment. For Demshar, these “progressive” tactics would simply cultivate attributes that Rock Springs featured when he was a boy, when going downtown meant a special trip to a vibrant place and residential areas offered an abundance of their own retail options.

“When I grew up in Rock Springs, there were three corner stores in my neighborhood,” Demshar said. “My family hardly ever went downtown because we could get everything we needed right there.”

Demshar has worked closely with McCarron and other city officials to rewrite ordinances that would make it easier for contractors to renovate historic and other buildings in the downtown district. He and a subcommittee of council members are looking at ways to make cost-prohibitive building codes more flexible, yet still enforce safety. His new director of the city’s Urban Renewal Agency is going door-to-door visiting downtown business owners in order to better understand how the city can be of help. A new performing arts venue is opening up that Demshar hopes will act as a catalyst to bring people downtown — to visit and live — and the county government recently purchased an elegant yet decrepit downtown bank building it will renovate for office space. If anything, Demshar is more pragmatic in his optimism for progressive development than McCarron, having watched Rock Springs reject it for decades. But he believes it can happen.

“It all depends on how the developer handles it and sells it to the people of the city,” he said. He points out that this was Garbett’s failing from the outset.

“They tried to take a cookie-cutter concept that worked in Salt Lake and apply it here, and it didn’t work,” Demshar said. “He didn’t take into account the socioeconomic factors, the mindsets or the open spaces of Rock Springs, which do not agree with his planning concept.”

If you ask urban planner Marina Khoury, however, it’s only a matter of time before that opposition abates. Khoury is a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. and runs the influential urban planning firm’s Washington, D.C. office, where she is director of town planning. DPZ’s principles — Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk — co-founded the influential Congress for the New Urbanism and have become the go-to planners for municipalities seeking denser alternatives to sprawling growth. In her mind, the country’s reclamation of traditional urban form is inevitable, even in a craggy old place like Rock Springs.

“The struggles have shifted,” she said. “Smart growth has been adopted nationally. Whole towns have been built according to its principles. We don’t have to make our case anymore. We have empirical evidence showing the positive outcomes of mixed use, narrow streets, alleys.”

“You have to look at your community and find ways the smart-growth model fits. Make those changes first. Pick off the low-hanging fruit.”

But after six years in Rock Springs, Jana McCarron is rightly suspicious of the one-size-fits all shape that smart growth can take, and the prospect that Khoury’s vision is inevitable for the city. She supports development that decreases carbon use, but rejects the idea that a set of development principles can be adopted wholesale without adjusting for the nuances that make a place unique.

“You don’t want to Wal-Mart-ize our country, and smart growth can do that just as easily as anything,” she said. “When you move to a place you become part of the community. You want to understand the community and work with it, not try to fight against it.”

McCarron defends large lot sizes, for instance, upon which Rock Springs homebuyers tend to insist. Sweetwater County offers incredible access to public land — 75 percent of its 10,500 square miles is public, and much of the private remaining quarter is left open for people (and livestock) to roam. If one has enough money to buy a new home, one also likely has enough money for a boat, RV, snowmobile or other means of taking advantage of this access. And when these vehicles are not in use, one needs a place to park them — along with the probably humungous four-wheel-drive pickup it takes to tow them around.

Among the aspects of Garbett’s Morningside development at which McCarron chortled were its eight-foot-deep driveways, which look comically small beneath your average oversized Rock Springs pickup truck. She said a smaller lot would likely not cater to her husband’s lifestyle either — as a falconer, he prefers space on his property for his eagle enclosure.

The Retrofit

During the height of Rock Springs’ last boom in the 1970s, 60 Minutes did an exposé on the crime and vice that had accompanied the tide of new residents drawn to jobs building a new power plant and working in new trona mines. In the opening scene, Dan Rather walks up a desert bluff under intense sun with the town behind him and says, “This is Rock Springs, Wyoming. People say when you come here you should set your watch back…about 30 years.”

In terms of city planning, Rather was being generous. The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, which forms the bedrock for zoning law in the United States, was passed in 1921. It wasn’t until the early ‘70s — when men had already begun to flood Rock Springs, living in man camps, tents and caves — that the city adopted its first zoning ordinances. They were moderately effective, at best, and had no influence outside the city’s limits, where construction pushed willy-nilly out into the desert.

Perhaps the most striking monument to this era is the area people call “North of Town,” which exists today as a vaguely defined amalgam in which it is not unusual to see a five-bedroom house on one lot, next to another that hosts two trailer homes and a horse corral, next to another on which sits an oilfield supply warehouse. The neighborhood’s streets are gravel and rarely cleared of snow, and they all culminate at the main arterial route, Yellowstone Road, which runs south into town. On the other side of that artery is Rock Springs’ prized recreation complex, built with windfall tax revenue from the 1970s boom. It features a 27-hole golf course, clubhouse, four baseball diamonds and a fishing pond, adjacent to rodeo grounds and a stock car racetrack. The boom collapsed in the early 1980s, just before Rock Springs adopted its current master plan in 1983.

McCarron has no plans to radically transform “North of Town,” or build another boom-time monument to the moment. Rather, she is attempting to do what Los Angeles-based architect Andrew Zago calls “breeding a new species” of place. Zago recently took part in a provocative exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Foreclosed, that asked five architects to hypothetically reshape a suburban landscape. His entry was the only one that resisted the impulse to simply replace the ‘burbs with the city.

“They asked us to re-imagine the suburbs,” he said. “I was really scratching my head when I saw that the other teams’ solutions was to put in apartment blocks.”

Zago stresses that sensitivity to existing construction and community desires should be fundamental parts of smart growth in suburbs, as well as towns and cities like Rock Springs that don’t have the walkable street grid or dense composition we associate with urbanity.

“My team argued that there are problems with the suburbs, but in certain ways they’re okay,” he said. “Maybe it’s possible to breed a new species from the suburbs instead of bringing in something new, whole cloth.”

Zago noted that while the suburbs are often homogenous in construction and culture, many supposedly progressive ways of reforming them are also clichéd. A tendency toward homogeneity that ignores local specificities has encroached on the field that was supposed to be fighting homogeneity in the first place.

“When I was in practice in Detroit before I came to Los Angeles,” Zago said, “I and many of my colleagues were very interested in different ideas of progressive architecture. But all of a sudden it seemed like they had been hijacked by New Urbanists, and if you weren’t for 19th century-style buildings, you were automatically for suburban sprawl. New Urbanism has its own overarching stylistic tendencies. I’ve tried to build my career around the idea that architecture should look forward, and that it need not be in opposition to what’s here at present.”

“The government does not move in big steps here.”

Although McCarron’s work in Rock Springs might not fit perfectly into the context of national trends and emerging ideas in architecture, it makes sense that planners in Southern California would conceive of projects that more closely apply to her situation than their East Coast counterparts. Los Angeles is often considered the king of American car culture, but its auto addiction hardly rivals Rock Springs’. According to the National Priorities Project Database, Wyoming ranks first in the nation in gasoline consumed per capita, at a whopping 15.9 barrels per person each year. And while McCarron emphasized that a chart she showed me with 37 percent of Rock Springs zoned as low-density residential was an overstatement, Tim Higgins at UCLA’s CityLAB estimates that 80 percent of Los Angeles is covered in single-family residential lots.

McCarron and Higgins essentially devised the same strategy to infill their respective cities, essentially for the same reasons. They both want to encourage the construction of small second units on large single lots as a way to increase density without dramatically altering the built environment’s aesthetics or essence. Their reasoning is simple: Small second homes have been built and have accomplished that aim in both places for years, but their respective cities discourage it. What McCarron calls “granny flats” are scattered throughout many of Rock Springs’ older neighborhoods, and people tend to prefer to live in them rather than apartments. But in 1982 the city passed its current zoning ordinance, which made granny flats nonconforming and prevented their further construction. McCarron’s new master plan will recommend reversing that ordinance. Higgins, who along with CityLAB helped devise the Backyard Homes Project at UCLA in 2010, said an informal Los Angeles Times census in 1980 counted around a quarter of a million backyard homes. There have to be more now, he said, since people have continued to build them under the radar. But although some municipal authorities turn a blind eye, there is no official policy condoning the housing type.

“The fact that people are doing it informally means neither the formal market nor politics have caught up,” Higgins said.

Rock Springs and Los Angeles are both traditionally difficult places to enact large-scale plans, for different reasons. Planned developments clearly do not fly in Rock Springs — political consequences and common understanding of the culture keep city officials from acting with dramatic flourishes.

“The government does not move in big steps here,” McCarron said.

Higgins said that while Los Angeles lacks Rock Springs’ libertarian sentiments, coalition-building within the city between its myriad interests often proves cumbersome, and that any unifying master plan is nearly impossible to move forward. Furthermore, while Rock Springs has physical impediments to smart growth — such as severe topography, a nonsensical street system and broad sections of homogenous zoning to prevent widespread innovative development — finding an entry point in Los Angeles’ uniform physical makeup can prove equally difficult.

“We sort of screwed ourselves by limiting the possibilities in planning and have made a stubborn landscape in which to intervene,” Higgins said.

Opportunity on the Oilfield

The master plan McCarron hopes to complete this summer will be Rock Springs’ first since 1983, and just like the last plan it will follow a period of growth, rather than precede it. But unlike the bust in the late 1970s, the economy appears stable in Rock Springs, even since the 2008 recession stumped the boom. Although the town’s near-complete economic dependence on the oil and gas industry makes another bust a real possibility — as Demshar put it mildly, “We are not well buffered from a downturn in the oil and gas industry” — that sector continues strongly, and development in Rock Springs carries on.

In addition to the new master plan’s goals that affect parts of town already built — infill with second units on single lots, connecting residential neighborhoods to schools via footpaths, facilitating downtown refurbishment — it will attempt to steer development in the flat spreads of sagebrush that surround the town. Rock Springs’ current zoning ordinance zoned all undeveloped land on the town’s outskirts “R1” — low-density residential — as a default. The relatively restrictive designation was meant to give city officials the chance to comment on proposed developments, but people simply took the designation literally and expected to see houses built in places where no one should build houses, like at the intersection of two arterial roads.

In McCarron’s master plan, undeveloped land will be essentially unzoned, which will force developers into a holding zone from which they must — in theory, at least — consult city officials before building anything that doesn’t conform with the master plan’s designation.

One area of special interest is an undeveloped 640-acre plot west of town recently put up for sale by Anadarko, a multinational petroleum corporation with regional interests. On the edge of current growth, McCarron bets it will be the next place development spreads. Her master plan will designate the area for mixed use — high-, mid- and low-density residential, commercial, and possibly some light industrial on the outskirts. The outcome she will push for is a walkable, bike-able, mixed neighborhood.

But even with support from the mayor and city council, McCarron’s hands are largely tied to do little more than zone and hope. She is unconfident in her ability to simply write in ordinances that would mandate certain types of development, particularly without successful examples to show the citizenry that smart growth can mean things other than White Mountain Village and Morningside. So, she has chosen a softer approach to start.

“I see myself as an obstacle remover,” she said. “I might not become known as the person who reshapes Rock Springs, but maybe I can put things in place that people decide, ‘Hey, I like this,’ and the next person can make it law. Or, maybe I can if I’m still planner in 20 years. We’re trying to grow smarter, allow for more mixtures. We want to facilitate areas that have historically been mixed-use to continue along that trajectory, like downtown. You work in baby steps, introduce these concepts where you can, move it forward. You have to look at your community and find ways the smart-growth model fits. Make those changes first. Pick off the low-hanging fruit.”

Frontier of Change

“The desert is not pristine,” Annie Proulx writes in Red Desert: History of a Place, about the area around Rock Springs. “It is dotted and crisscrossed with pipelines, power lines, stone cairns, thousands of miles of rough roads, new roads constantly added, transmission towers, stock tanks, airstrips, the remains of horse traps and juniper corrals, and the ruins of old stage stations and ranches. The eye ignores most of these, and it is the absence of fences and graceless railroad town architecture, as well as the long sight lines that let us believe we are in a wild landscape that has changed little over the centuries.”

That southwest Wyoming has enormous amounts of space is sometimes confused with the idea that it has unlimited space — a notion that seems to persist even as oil and gas development spreads, removing any specter of the pristine. Unfamiliar with Rock Springs as she is, Marina Khoury, the DPZ architect, pointed out correctly that Wyoming’s incredible open spaces support the argument for dense urban growth, because if the unpopulated spaces are so incredible, surely we must want to preserve them as such.

Though her reasoning is sound, it takes a delicate approach to introduce new concepts in certain conservative parts of the world. Conservationists point out that the West’s hard and bitter landscapes are actually highly vulnerable — roads cut to desert oil rigs leave scars that last centuries — and those who defend the Great Frontier ideal, rightly or wrongly, similarly worry about its precipitous demise. Those who dismiss the way in which Rock Springs conducts itself as inherently backwards and call for a new model are equally ignorant of the fact that the town’s present geography and culture is the starting point from which all change must occur.

Jana McCarron understands this. Whether her own efforts succeed or fail matters less than her willingness to work from this standpoint in such a disagreeable place. If there truly exists a front of the culture wars between American small towns and cities — and I believe there does, having lived long in both — her work represents a sort of hypothesis in which everyone wins. The alternative, in which we build efficient urban areas and leave the remainder of America to sprawl, would be a monstrosity we cannot accept.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Nathan C. Martin is a writer and editor in New Orleans. He is the author of the Wallpaper* City Guide to New Orleans and his writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Oxford American, The Believer, VICE, and other places. He is the founder and editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News as well as its related literary event series. From 2008 – 2010 he was associate publisher and web editor of Stop Smiling. He is currently at work on a book about Wyoming, his home state.

Akasha Rabut is a freelance photographer based in New Orleans. After a childhood living between Kauai and California, she studied photography at Otis Parsons College of Art and Design and San Francisco Art Institute. In 2007, she graduated summa cum laude from SFAI. Akasha’s work has appeared on the pages and websites of various publications including Vice, Beautiful Decay,, Design For Mankind,, and She is a member of the photography department at The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1105 other sustainers such as:

  • Bruce in Muncie, IN at $60/Year
  • John in Dayton, OH at $120/Year
  • Andrea at $100/Year

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉