THE FUTURE IS NOW
A loyal reader was cleaning out his garage last weekend and came across an ancient Mammoth planning document that he thought I might find interesting.
The bound, 64-page, 10” tall by 13” wide book is unusual in that it features beautiful renderings and layouts and fonts: as a planning document it is a fairly impressive piece of art.
It was the product of a collaboration between Mammoth Lakes and UCLA.
As the acknowledgements reads, “Financial support for this project was provided in the form of an Applied Research Grant to UCLA from Friends of Mammoth Inc. with the generous assistance of the citizens for a Better Environment, Inc. – Los Angeles.
… Additional support for science and engineering portions was provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and through student fellowship support from the Scaife Family Charitable Trust of Pittsburgh.”
Further grants/supporters are also listed. As well as 21 members of the project study group, representing the school of architecture and urban planning, and the environmental science and engineering program, as well as the UCLA School of Law.
The study was undertaken in 1972.
It proposed to weigh five visions of Mammoth’s 1985 future. As outlined on page five: “The intent was to provide a range of alternative environmental ‘futures’ which would span the spectrum of differing community values, and then to describe, as accurately as possible, the likely consequences of each of those futures.”
“The Mammoth Lakes/UCLA project is a response to a widely-held belief that the quality of the Mammoth Lakes community environment is rapidly deteriorating.”
What was refreshing about this study was that it had the backing of not only the Friends of Mammoth, but of the Chamber of Commerce and the Lodging Association. As opposed to the current zeitgeist, where business and environmental interests have become increasingly polarized, unyielding and tribal.
At the time, the concern was over explosive growth. The local resident population had increased by 80% in the 1960s. Ski visits had tripled in 15 years. The number of residential units had increased 500% in the 1960s.
As of January, 1972, there were 3,517 residential units in Mammoth with permits issued for another 739.
Under 1972 zoning, the report states Mammoth had the potential to build up to 18,500 units with a peak weekend population of 82,000.
While the study authors made no recommendation as to what course Mammoth should pursue (rapid growth, no growth, et. al.), it did make a recommendation that in order to control its own destiny, it must act fast. “Development in Mammoth is proceeding at a very rapid pace. If this development is to be deliberately guided by local policy decisions, action must be taken within months, not years.”
So what happened in the immediate aftermath of the report release? It appears nothing. Which was fittingly a policy choice examined by the study’s authors.
“Alternative Future A is characterized by the highest estimated feasible population and a very low density of development … the general thrust of Future A is to try to achieve the most dispersed, least urban-looking community, consistent with a very high population.”
Future A envisions a peak weekend population of 35,500, which represents a damn fine guess.
For comparison’s sake, the Mammoth Community Water District estimated the 2020 peak visitor population in its 2020 Urban Water Management Plan at 34,380.
Sure, Mammoth ultimately incorporated (1984) and built the Village at Mammoth in the early 2000s, but one could argue that the dispersion model, despite some nibbling around the edges, has been the Town’s default planning model since its inception.
As the study document posits, “Dispersed as it is, Future A requires a much lesser degree of coordination and ‘public control’ than do the more densely-developed alternatives. It is likely to reinforce a more informal, family-oriented lifestyle.”
Which I translate as, Future A is the future you get with laissez-faire government.
The benefits of A were generally described as increased opportunity for activities and services.
The “Major Undesirable or Controversial Impacts of A” reads like a list of the past fifty years of political battles in Mammoth. I’ll print the first ten bullet points verbatim:
1. A pedestrian environment could not be achieved
2. It is very doubtful a small town atmosphere could be achieved
3. The town would have a “suburban” quality to it.
4. There would be serious damage to trees and land beyond the present townsite
5. Substantial erosion damage is probable.
6. The most serious damage to wildlife would occur in this future.
7. Substantial overcrowding could be expected for some summer recreation activities.
8. The lack of low-cost housing would be a critical problem.
9. A comprehensive public transit system would be unfeasible.
10. The auto would remain the dominant form of transportation.
Of course, planners like to plan, and I didn’t think it was the goal of a UCLA Urban Planning graduate program to invest a ton of time projecting what would happen to a town which has proven fiercely resistant to professional advice and a town prone to argue itself into inertia, but …
As I pored over the study, I flipped back to the project study group page and wondered, “How many of these people are still alive?
Some of the participants had narrow areas of expertise, so they wouldn’t have been able to provide a broad perspective, but the fourth name down the list, Paul Hatanaka, had contributed to the Attitude Survey (Mammoth had had a fairly astonishing 40% survey return rate), Economy, Public Services and Visual Quality research.
So I looked online and found a promising number in Cerritos and damn if it wasn’t him.
As Hatanaka explained, the study was part of a class project/Masters thesis
He visited Mammoth on multiple occasions and interviewed several residents and shop owners, including Dave McCoy and Andrea Mead Lawrence.
As Hatanaka recalled, “We were concerned about the local residents.” They had fled urban sprawl, he explained, only to have the urban sprawl chase them to Mammoth.
“In a high development, high access, popular destination,” added Hatanaka, “impacts can occur quickly. The challenge is to not let visitation affect the quality of the community, quality of life.”
The UCLA class which performed the study was the first graduating class of the Urban Planning program. He’d originally thought of becoming an architect, but was drawn to this new field.
He recalls Kittredge Sports loaning some snowshoes and equipment so that the group could investigate different geographical sites.
One time they took the gondola to Mammoth Mountain’s summit and hiked down to Cornice in a blizzard.
“We were supposed to report on what we saw, but we couldn’t see anything,” he laughed.
His professors later told the class that “Facing The Future” became a blueprint for future Environmental Impact Reports written in the state.
The report was also unique in that the class tried its hand at some of the first computer modeling.
Hatanaka said the class cut its teeth playing a computer simulation called CLUG (Cornell Land Use Game). Often, just one round of the game would take several days because of all the inputs that had to be made, extending utilities, roads, etc.
The simulations aided the class in honing projections.
UCLA’s nascent program was also unique in that it preached taking a broad, regional, even worldwide approach.
Hatanaka ultimately spent his career in urban planning, working for a quasi-governmental agency which was active in six different Southern California counties. His main focus was in transportation.
As to modern urban planning, Hatanaka was measured in his reply.
Hopefully elected officials follow the expert advice, he said, but more and more, decision-makers have lobbyists and other interests pumping dollars into it, impacting the results of studies.
Or the studies are relatively clean, but the lobbyists urge the elected officials to ignore the results.
“Money does talk,” he said.