A new Oregon State University-Cascades campus study found Bend residents envision major population growth as harmful to their well-being, but the project has as much to do with how the data was measured as it does with the results.
Associate Professor of Tourism and Outdoor Leadership Kreg Lindberg and Assistant Professor of Psychology Christopher Wolsko conducted the study with $10,000 from the Circle of Excellence, an internal research funding source for the OSU-Cascades faculty. The study was based on a survey that posed hypothetical results stemming from an expanded urban growth boundary, such as population growth, diminished trail connectivity and lower unemployment. The UGB is the limit around a city beyond which urban development is not allowed, unless a city can prove it needs the boundary expanded. Respondents quantified how their subjective well-being, or SWB, would change in each area affected by the UGB expansion. Results are based on nearly 500 completed surveys, representing a response rate of 11 percent.
“People’s greatest fears are population growth, because it could forever change the character of a small town,” Lindberg said. “But population growth is also people’s greatest hope, as it can drive job growth in an area. We wanted to take a closer look at what people here value, whether or not having easy access to a trailhead, for example, matters.”
On the surface, the study offers a window into how residents feel about possible effects of a UGB expansion. But for Lindberg and Wolsko, the study is also a chance to evaluate the power of SWB measures. For example, do government policies even affect SWB? If so, does policy influence one’s SWB in a way that can be anticipated?
“The project is about reshaping the decision process from one that is based solely on economic cost-benefit analyses to something that is more human,” Wolsko said. “Which is not to say that money is not important, as it clearly is, but that there are other useful lenses we can use.”
As an example of how decisions are currently made, Lindberg discussed the possible extinction of the northern spotted owl. Typically, a government would consider the amount of money required to save the species either as a direct cost or as the result of new limitations on commercial activity.
Residents would then have the opportunity to base their decision on whether or not saving the species is worth that specified cost. If residents propose a value higher than the cost, the government acts to save the owl.
“The issue is that people may have a hard time thinking about the value of an owl in dollars,” Lindberg said. “It may be easier to say how the loss of the owl will affect someone’s subjective well-being, or maybe not, but we’re exploring this alternative way to do things.”
In their study, Lindberg said their results confirmed “what common wisdom would suggest.” Respondents did not imagine an additional 20,000 people as a positive influence on the city, but what they overwhelmingly rejected was the prospect of even larger growth, on the scale of 60,000 to 120,000.
As for demographics, those with an affinity for nature denounced growth the most stringently. Females and more highly educated individuals were also found to have a higher affinity for nature, and thus to react negatively to UGB expansion. Higher-income individuals, meanwhile, were the least critical of growth.
“I would not want policy-makers to base any decision solely on this kind of data,” Lindberg said. “Every metric has limits, but this is good as part of the suite of measures.”
One issue with subjective well-being, Wolsko said, is that people are often bad prognosticators of what will make them happy. Another issue derives from the limitations placed on social scientists.
“It would be ideal to allocate people to four different communities that we could control, like biologists can do with plants, controlling their water and soil,” Lindberg said. “But of course, there are good reasons we can’t do that, so we are unable to see if what people say would affect their subjective well-being actually is accurate. Still I think it’s important for these measures to be part of the discussion. With cost-benefit analysis, things that do not have a dollar value are often forgotten.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org