Spotlight on Sustainability: The unique challenges of smart growth in rural Montana

The Cabinet Mountains in northern Montana. Photo courtesy of Almost-Normal Photography.

How do you grow responsibly in frontier communities? What does smart growth look like in these extremely rural areas? How can you adapt smart growth principles – often associated with urban cores – to small town America? These are precisely the kinds of questions that Vibrant Futures Montana is working to answer with the help of a Regional Planning grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

To develop solutions for northern Montana’s unique issues, Vibrant Futures has been working hard to coordinate the efforts of local governments and communities which are spread out over an immense territory – over 31,000 square miles. “Between 11 counties and 3 reservations, there has historically been no coordination between governmental entities as to how they would plan,” says Deborah Kottel, Interim Regional Coordinator at Vibrant Futures. “They’ve never thought about how the counties could work together.”

Promoting cooperation and coordination is key to the region’s success, Kottel notes, and much of the group’s efforts have been devoted to creating and fostering relationships between the counties’ administrators. The counties can more effectively tackle the region’s challenges by working together.

In particular, Kottel says, the region must prepare for economic fluctuations. And as a planner, she understands how such specific regional challenges affect how planning must be carried out.

“When a tiny community’s economy relies on unpredictable industries like oil exploration, planning becomes drastically different than in a more steady city of any size. When the boom has ended, what happens? Can you turn worker camps into industrial parks? And if so, how do you do that? These are the kinds of questions we’re trying to answer.” The region also suffers from a scarcity of vital services, like medical and dental care, the lack of which has been pushing the aging parts of the population out of small towns and undercutting local businesses.

A recently implemented bus route, however, has done much to address the lack of regional connectivity between communities. “Simple things like putting in a reliable bus line can do so much and allow people to live in rural communities and let them live how they want while also connecting them to other people and other communities,” Kottel says.

By adapting smart growth strategies like these to solve regional issues, local planners are able to achieve the same goals communities everywhere strive for: creating a resilient local economy, providing better choices for residents about where to live and how to get around, and keeping a place great for current and future residents.

These kinds of solutions must be cooperative efforts, though, which is why the grant is so crucial as the region crafts a multi-county plan. “We are getting the counties to work together,” Kottel says. “They never thought about cooperating at this level, so we’re challenging them to go beyond traditional government structure and plan regionally.”

And it is this shared effort that will help the region to thrive. Through its visioning process, Vibrant Futures is seeking to create a plan for the region that is informed and shaped by its residents, creating stable communities while preserving the region’s frontier character.

“We want to give technical assistance and professional planning advice to the frontier counties and communities to help them continue to make wise decisions. But we also want to build relationships for working together, creating trust between government units to set a precedent for cooperative regional planning, because that’s the only way we can succeed.”

Learn more about Vibrant Futures Montana at