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Taking a Closer Look

Gateway Communities

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Americans are on the move. And a lot of them are heading for the communities that serve as the gateways to our national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. Gateway communities are important not just because they provide food and lodging for Americans on their way to visit national parks and other public lands. They are also portals to our most cherished landscapes. Indeed, they define the park experience for many visitors. Gateway communities are also “ground zero” in the struggle between haphazard development and planned growth.

In the 1990s, two million more Americans moved from metropolitan centers to rural areas than migrated the other way. With their natural beauty and high quality of life, gateway communities have become a magnet for a growing number of Americans. In fact, in recent years rural counties with federally-designated wilderness areas grew six times as fast as counties without designated wilderness areas. …

Tourists and traffic In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, an entry point to Smoky Mountains National Park.
Is this what residents and visitors want to see? In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, an entry point to Smoky Mountains National Park.

Gateway communities offer important lessons for other rural communities grappling with growth and change. Ben Read, a writer in Jackson Hole says, “that these communities are perhaps the first to contend with the limits to growth in an area.” When suburbs get too congested, growth just leapfrogs farther out, but gateway communities often don’t have that option. Much of the land on their outskirts is publicly owned and thus off-limits to development. In an evermore crowded world, the lessons provided by gateway communities will be increasingly valuable to all. …

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photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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