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OPINION: Is Growth Always Good?


by George Webb, retired UVM professor


When population increases, development increases: More commercial buildings, houses, apartments, schools, and more and wider roads. My personal experience has been that not all of these changes are good.

I moved to Vermont in 1966 when the population was about 423,000. Now it is about 625,000. In 1966 we could easily afford to buy a house on Lake Champlain because the demand was low. Due to increased population, the demand has greatly increased and prices have gone through the roof: thus our annual real estate taxes are almost equal to the original house price. We still enjoy it, but it is not quite as pleasant as it used to be. I still enjoy kayaking on the lake at sunset, but it is not as peaceful now due to a big increase in motor boats. We used to walk or cross-country ski directly across the road from our house, but now the beautiful meadow and woods have become a large housing development. Now there are times when we have traffic jams in Burlington.  One improvement was the building of a bike path over what were railroad tracks when we moved here. But, the path is getting more crowded with a mix of bikes, joggers, roller-bladers, walkers (some with dogs), and small kids. In the 60s and 70s I usually encountered fewer than a dozen other hikers at the top of Camel’s Hump, but in the early 90s there were about 200, and no good spot to sit for lunch.

I have experienced the same types of changes in Singapore. I went to a lab there to do research while on sabbatical leave from the University of Vermont in 1993; then the population was 3.3 million. When I retired from UVM in 1997 I began spending the winters in the same research lab in Singapore, and I was there for a month this winter. Now, in 2015, the population has increased to 5.5 million. This has brought about many bad changes. Prices are higher, and many areas that used to be grass or tropical forest are now huge developments or new university or hospital buildings, etc. The beaches are more crowded. A few years ago I kayaked to a beach with two friends where we were the only people there; now it is a huge development. In 1993 my wife and I used to stroll along a long shore front path in West Coast Park and enjoy the sunsets. Now that park is a huge container ship unloading facility and the view of the setting sun is blocked by a tall fence and stacks of containers.

In the early 90s I was chair of the population committee of the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club. When I retired from UVM I began spending about five months of each year in Singapore and had to give up my chairmanship. No one came forward to continue the Sierra Club committee, but fortunately that hole was soon filled by Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, which was founded by George Plumb and is still going strong. In 2013 my primary grant funding in Singapore expired and I cut back to one month per year in Singapore. I then became chair of the Vermont Sierra Club Sustainable Population Committee, which collaborates with VSP. Both groups are striving for sustainable populations in Vermont and the world. For Vermont to be sustainable we should consume only renewable foods and supplies, preferably produced in Vermont. VSP published an online report (www.vspop.org) which concluded that the best sustainable population for Vermont is under 500,000. This means that we should work toward a phase of negative growth.