After 150 years, Gallatin County has finally reached a population of 100,000. If we continue to grow at the same rate we have for the past couple of decades, by 2040 we’ll reach 200,000. In other words, it took 150 years to get to 100,000, but it will likely take just 25 years to get to 200,000.

For the first 125 years of the county’s existence, most growth happened in the cities, in traditional, smaller, town-sized lots. In 1970, 70% of Gallatin County’s population lived in its 5 cities. But for the next 30 or so years, rural population in the county grew at more than twice the rate of the urban population, dropping the city share to about 55%. That means that we are spreading much farther into the countryside than we ever did before. This requires much more expensive infrastructure (think how many miles of roads we need when we spread out) and paves over much more farm and ranch lands and open spaces.

But we can do better than that. There’s a lot of pride of place and smart, concerned people in all the communities of this Valley – and heaven knows we have a place worth protecting. Based upon the adopted growth policies of all the cities and the county (which contain the vision and goals for how they want to look like in the future), it would appear that most people share the basic hope for a future Gallatin Valley that includes multiple options for getting from place to place, avoiding increasing traffic jams, and building neighborhoods with a sense of place, surrounded by open space and farms and ranches. Places that are based upon traditional values like in our oldest neighborhoods – future neighborhoods built for the 21st century, based upon the values of the past.

Using a cool computer mapping tool called Envision Tomorrow, Professor Ralph Johnson at Montana State University has created various scenarios of the future Gallatin Valley – maps and data showing how the future might look, depending upon how we grow. The scenarios come in various flavors – a “business as usual” future in which we continue to grow in the same low-density, spread-out pattern of the past few decades, a scenario that preserves the most agricultural lands, a scenario that builds the most cost-efficient public infrastructure, and a scenario that results from most of the growth occurring in our existing cities and towns.

Professor Johnson’s work may sound like a geeky undertaking, but it’s anything but – the scenarios just represent the sort of place we will become as a result of the choices that our community leaders make today. As Johnson says, “the way we have been growing will probably not result in something that we would wish for, but if we can come together as distinct Gallatin Valley communities that plan together for the future, we can keep this place special even as we grow. That will make a difference of thousands of fewer acres developed and millions of dollars less in taxpayer-financed infrastructure.

Given that town neighborhoods require much less land than rural ones (the average house lot in rural Gallatin Valley would occupy about 2.5 city blocks), and that the next 100,000 people will need about 40,000 homes, the choice is clear: unless we attract more growth to our towns we’ll lose our unique sense of place within the next generation.

There is much reason to be hopeful: since 2000, Gallatin County’s cities and towns have been gaining a greater share of the Valley’s growth, reversing a trend in which the majority of the county’s growth occurred in rural areas that started in the 1970s. Since 2000, the county’s cities have picked up much more of the county’s total growth, and developers and builders are capitalizing on that trend by building some of best-designed town neighborhoods and buildings we’ve seen since the founding of the county in 1865.

We can capitalize on these trends, but only if we come together as communities and chart a different course. We can provide people greater choice in where they live – whether in towns or in rural areas. How we grow will make all the difference in our everyday lives – the traffic we’ll deal with, the quality of our water, the health of our ag economy, the views.