Councilmember Jenny Brekhus on refocusing a post-recession Reno, NV for stronger growth

renoDowntown Reno, Nevada. Photo by Kim Olson via Flickr.

In the early 2000’s, Nevada was the fastest-growing state in the country and cities like Reno saw an unprecedented, rapid boom in residential and commercial development.

Seemingly just as quickly, however, the recession hit and in short time foreclosure rates were soaring. The rest is a story all too familiar to communities across the country that, like Reno, are still struggling to recover from the resulting decline in property values and the decline in municipal revenues that goes with them.

“Neighborhoods were in decline before they even had time to grow up and be built,” says Reno Councilmember Jenny Brekhus, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. “At the same time, our city amassed a lot of debt.” Exacerbating Reno’s compromised ability to provide vital city services, the city lacked clearly defined municipal boundaries. As the city sprawled, the cost of infrastructure and services like water, sewer and emergency response grew.

Reno Councilmember Jenny Brekhus.

Reno is now refocusing: building a city and a region within its bounds based on the wants and needs of its residents. The city is taking steps to update its Comprehensive Plan for the first time since the 1990s. “If you don’t have a plan,” says Brekhus, “you don’t have a dialogue on values and priorities in your community, and the result is haphazard growth, which is something that we quite simply cannot afford.”

An urban planner by trade, Councilmember Brekhus understands the importance of transitioning away from the boom and bust economy of the past and focusing instead on a new economy built on the human capital and economic investment that is drawn to places with a great quality of life.

“Demographic change is trending in favor of a population more likely to be favorable to smart growth strategies,” says Brekhus. Those changing populations are drawn to walkable places, with great amenities, “built to a human scale”, as she puts it. And Reno, a mid-sized, high desert city at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, offers many of the outdoor, recreational opportunities that can attract new residents.

That younger generation choosing to make Reno home because of the beautiful setting and breadth of outdoor and cultural activities, is beginning to repopulate neighborhoods that haven’t seen a whole lot of growth happening in recent years. “There has been so much energy around reclamation of our urban core,” says Brekhus. “The energy, the activity, and the community commitment are bringing life to a lot of our forgotten neighborhoods.”

Moving forward to an even greater understanding of how the choices a community makes about growth impact its ability to provide efficient public services, has left Reno optimistic about their ability to provide a high quality of life for generations to come. “Our encumbrance was not having smart growth as a cornerstone upon which to build,” says Brekhus. “Now that we are moving in the right direction, we can continue to focus on an even stronger Reno for our residents and truly be ‘The Biggest Little City.'”

Local Leaders Council