Florida State University : Research in Review

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Orlando has seen the future, and it's not for the faint of heart.

The world's busiest tourist destination already sits at the core of a seven-county, human beehive of 3.5 million residents in Central Florida. Planners predict this number will jump to a staggering 7.2 million by 2050—nearly four million more people to find water, power, houses, services and transportation for.

An entire chapter in FSU's new analysis of Florida's growth management policies examines how Orlando's Orange County has dealt so far with its human onslaught, which grows by 30,000 newcomers each year. The study's wry conclusion? "Although every jurisdiction in the county has a plan, it is hard to characterize overall growth in the county as well planned."

The finding hardly comes as a revelation to Orlando's Chamber of Commerce. In August 2007, the chamber finally rolled out the most ambitious planning project in Florida. Called the 2050 Future Vision, the product is essentially a plan drawn up by residents themselves. Earlier in the year, residents were asked to vote their choice on four future development scenarios presented in a "How Shall We Grow?" referendum. Only 4 percent of 20,000 voters said they wanted to follow existing trends, and a favored option was to put more residents in less space, even if that entailed significant lifestyle changes.

The 2050 Future Vision places a third of Orlando's future population in downtowns, town centers, and compact neighborhoods. The plan calls for less private space than today, optional driving, and more varied and endearing public spaces. By building up rather than out, this plan stands to save taxpayers $26 billion in infrastructure costs. A planned acquisition of 850,000 acres of natural land also integrates urban development into a vast green infrastructure, made up of seven natural corridors.

As a point of comparison, a 2050 Future Trend scenario also was drafted that showed what would happen if the county essentially did nothing and kept its current development patterns. Jonathan Barnett, a well-known urban designer from the University of Pennsylvania, was hired to make this status quo projection. He predicted that if nothing changes, the region would implode around 2025. By then, Barnett calculated that it would be impossible to build a functional road network in the region. Moreover, the loss of natural lands to development would decimate the quality and function of the region's ecosystem and supplies of potable water.

How successful was the project? Metro Plan, the region's transportation planning agency, has called for the restitution of the high-speed bullet train—the aim of a short-lived constitutional amendment repealed by voters in 2004—and the development of a streetcar network. When added to a new commuter rail system that Metro envisions someday running through the heart of the region—between Deland and Kissimmee—the idea of attaining a new, more sustainable urban metropolis now doesn't seem as farfetched.

Proponents of 2050 say it's about time the area's leaders did something right for a change. In 1998 the Orange County Commission voted against participating in a federally funded light rail project, and $600 million earmarked for metropolitan Orlando went to Charlotte, North Carolina. Today the Queen City operates streetcars and a light rail system that soon will have 52 stops, and voters recently approved a tax increase to extend the system even further. With its urban transformation now in full swing, Charlotte's real estate market has kept its value while Orlando's is tanking. At the same time, Orlando's is getting its corporate clock cleaned—Charlotte has eight Fortune 500 companies; Orlando has one. (Orlando did learn something from its North Carolina rival—Orlando's 2050 project was modeled on a Charlotte initiative.)

Orlando's bold, wake-up call bears watching, state planners say. As one of the nation's most ethnically diverse and sprawl-threatened cities, they see Orlando as the canary in Florida's coalmine. What happens in the world's most celebrated fantasyland may turn out to be a reality Floridians can ill afford to miss.—P.N.