A Tale of Two City Plans: Part One


In my general sleuthing on the Internet for what to do these couple months while I’m in Boulder, Colorado, and being curious if there were any Boulder/Missoula connections, I stumbled across a dynamite relic of an article written for The Austin Chronicle back in 1995 titled, “Missoula, Montana and Boulder, Colorado: Tale of Two Cities.”

The article is much like a time capsule for these two cities with which I am now quite familiar, and its premise is a discussion about city planning. Now, I did not live in Missoula back in 1995, so I can’t speak personally to what it was like in those days, but I have seen changes come and go over the last near decade I have lived here. Reading this article gave me a fascinating insight into what was being thought of at that time in terms of urban planning and how people were thinking about it.

To give a frame of context, at the time the article was written, Daniel Kemmis was Mayor and the population of Missoula was 46,386. I’d like to summarize and discuss some of the more interesting topics in the article on city planning, transportation and community involvement and blend it with my own observations in this two-part series on Missoula and Boulder.

Part One – Missoula, Montana

In the 1990s, Missoula was one of the “top five worst cities in the country” for air quality. With heavy and growing commuter traffic from the Bitterroot and Rattlesnake valleys and an inversion that hung over Missoula five months a year, and the lack of a plan to combat the pollution, it wasn’t until 2007 that Missoula achieved “attainment” status for carbon monoxide levels by reducing open burning and woodstoves, as well as working to improve commuting options for locals and nearby residents.

In the mid-1990s, Missoula already had an extensive gridwork of sidewalks, biking and walking trails, as well as a paid bicycle/pedestrian coordinator who promotes those activities. Today, Phil Smith is still Missoula’s Bike/Ped coordinator, and our trail systems continue to grow. Interestingly, in the article, Missoula city planners were just then discussing options to improve Malfunction Junction (by building a bypass!), or whether to widen the highway through the Bitterroot (check!) or to add bike lanes and pedestrian bridges (check, check!). Missoula did have in place in 1995 a Non-Motorized Transportation Plan, which provided insight and direction for increasing travel by foot, bike, wheelchair, but only in 2010 has it began its first update in the last ten years (see link below).

Behind these plans and discussions sat Mayor Daniel Kemmis, a man who had a reputation in the country as being a forward thinker when it came to community involvement and urban planning; in fact, Kemmis was thought of as the man who “wrote the book” on community involvement – probably because he really did. Kemmis wrote Community and the Politics of Place in 1992, and the theories in that book have been cited by numerous other city planners around the country, especially in Boulder, but more on that in Part Two.

One of Kemmis’s most prominent theories was known as “scenario planning,” which capitalized on gathering insight and viewpoints from a variety of interested/affected parties on a planning issue. In the article, Kemmis explains that “most planning involves picking a pathway and trying to make the future conform to your ideas… Scenario planning acknowledges that it’s not possible to control or absolutely predict what’s going to happen. Instead, you get people to identify two or three plausible scenarios, then pick the one you’re most interested in pursuing. It creates a whole lot of flexibility, and also helps factions agree. They might not like a certain scenario, but they can say, `I see how it might happen,’ and then go from there.”

Imagine, knowing that we can’t control or predict the future, but we can join together to bring up ideas for what might happen and jointly talk about solutions. This opportunity is happening right here and now in Missoula. There are several ways you can bring your voice to the public and to city planners and make a difference. Here is a list of those opportunities:

  • The Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is seeking public comments on its draft of the 2011 Missoula Active Transportation Plan as an update to the 2001Non-Motorized Transportation Plan. To get involved and submit a comment, visit http://www.co.missoula.mt.us/transportation/
  • Want to serve on Missoula’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board? A vacancy has come up and the Mayor’s Office is seeking applicants for a position to complete a term ending September 15, 2012. Applications are due before 5 PM on March 2, and the application can be found here.
  • For businesses who want to improve congestion and help their employees arrive to work happier and healthier, they can sign up for Missoula In Motion’s annual Commuter Challenge – a friendly competition held during Bike/Walk/Bus Week (May 1-7). Businesses must register by March 17. More information can be found at http://bit.ly/CommuterChallengeEntry

In 1995, Kemmis asked our community a question as part of a Vision 20/20 campaign, “What should Missoula look like in the year 2020?” Well, we’re now closer to 2020 than we are to 1995. What will our city look like in nine years?

Let’s hear your answer to Kemmis’s question, tell us: What should Missoula look like in 2020?

Click here to see Ryan’s blog archive.


Ryan Newhouse has pedaled through thousands of miles of Missoula’s streets and trails as a commuter, long-distance cyclist, recreationist and former city bicycling ambassador. Although he now works from home, he still uses two feet or two wheels to push or pull himself and his daughter around town.  Back to “Bike It” home page or check out Ryan’s own blog.