Why “complete communities” make more sustainable places

Photo of Ben Gordon
Jamie Sterling

2 July 2024

“I think in order to take care of a destination, it has to be a true partnership with the community.” — Ben Gordon

Connecting communities and preserving destinations are two roles that make natural allies out of DMOs and environmental watchdog organizations, despite their differing mandates.

Central Oregon LandWatch is a great example of an organization that influences the destination in ways that are compatible with the sustainability solutions of the region’s DMO, Visit Bend. Led by a mission to defend and plan for the region’s livable future, LandWatch’s Executive Director Ben Gordon explains that upholding Bend’s sense of place requires constant vigilance. And it happens on a variety of fronts. 

LandWatch’s scope includes urban planning, rural land use, and wildlands and water management, a breadth that, according to Ben, works to establish “complete communities” that meet the needs of everyone who interacts with those spaces. He wants to ensure that the people living there and the people moving there are part of the larger ecosystem, and that there are creative ways to help manage the balance of people and nature without sacrificing quality of life or community character. Complete communities are important for the visitor economy as well. Not only do travellers enjoy being in spaces with diversified offerings, but they’re also safer, more accessible, and more inclusive.

Ultimately, Ben sees community partnerships as the key for creating widespread, long-term benefits. Whether it’s educating and inspiring the public, providing a path for participation, supporting Indigenous priorities, or advocating for environmental issues, he urges communities to “come together, harness your voice, get clear about what you want home to feel like, and make it so.”

This episode of Travel Beyond, you’ll learn:

  • What an environmental watchdog does and how Central Oregon LandWatch was formed.
  • About the upcoming challenges facing Bend and Central Oregon, among other communities in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Why affordable housing is linked to better land management and preservation of natural environments.
  • Positive examples of housing solutions.
  • Advice for concerned citizens and tourism destinations who want to preserve what makes their place special.


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Show notes

Cascade Mountains – A major mountain range extending from northern California to central British Columbia.

Central Oregon LandWatch – An environmental watchdog and land use advocate that defends the region’s waterways, wildlife, farms, and forests. 

Complete communities – An urban and rural planning concept that integrates land use planning, transportation planning, and community design to meet the basic needs of all residents.

Save Skyline Forest – A community conservation campaign led by Central Oregon LandWatch to permanently conserve the Skyline Forest area.

Three Sisters Wilderness – The second largest wilderness area in Oregon, located in the Cascade Range within the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests. 

Episode transcript

Ben Gordon: In order to take care of a destination, it has to be a true partnership with the community. This is a community that cares, voices its opinions, shows up to the town halls, lets the decision makers know what’s important. So any other community, I would say, come together, harness your voice, get clear about what you want home to feel like, and make it so.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Hello and welcome to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to bring you inspiring solutions to the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet. I’m Sara Raymond de Booy, Associate Creative Director at Destination Think. I’m recording from Seattle, Washington on Coast Salish land, specifically that of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot people.

David Archer: And I’m David Archer from Destination Think, recording from Daajing Giids, British Columbia, a village in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation. On this show, we look at the role of travel and highlight destinations that are global leaders. We talk to the changemakers who are addressing regenerative travel through action in their communities, and often from the bottom up.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And we’re actively looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems. So be sure to reach out if you have a story to share with us. 

David Archer: And speaking of good bottom-up examples, we’ve got a story today from a Bend community member and nonprofit organization who are watching to ensure that, quote, regional growth will be managed and directed for the benefit of people and protection of nature.

That line is from the vision of Central Oregon LandWatch, which is devoted to ensuring the lands and waters around Bend are well looked after. And crucially, they emphasize how important community input and involvement is. Destination managers often have a similar role as community connectors.

We’ve seen that firsthand with many destination planning projects we’ve been involved in. Sara, do you think tourism destinations and watchdog organizations like this one are becoming natural allies? 

Sara Raymond de Booy: I think they are becoming quite a natural fit. If a place changes and loses what made it special, it’s also going to lose the reasons that people want to visit it.

So it definitely makes sense. Also, because DMOs all have different mandates and, you know, different things they can have authority over, not all have the same power to influence the future of a destination. So I think in cases where they feel like that’s where they can probably benefit from the work being done by a watchdog organization.

Everything I said might be completely oversimplified and has a big asterisk of where they should probably align with the mission of the watchdog organization. But I definitely think that there are ways that they can become good allies, especially if the DMO wants to, you know, to work to really shape the future of their community.

David Archer: Yeah, I think it can be a good fit in some circumstances, and it seems that way here. Ben Gordon is today’s guest. He’s the Executive Director of Central Oregon LandWatch. One thing that surprised me about your chat with Ben was that his work isn’t only about undeveloped land outside of Bend. Central Oregon Land Watch is also involved with city planning, housing, and something he calls complete communities.

Did anything stand out to you about how they’re balancing rural, urban, and other areas? 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So, as I was chatting with Ben and listening to what he had to say, I guess a lot of his comments on balancing that rural, urban, and other areas seemed like it was really articulating what I was already seeing in Bend.

So, in a way, it’s kind of an indication that their work is making a difference in the long term, where when you saw development happening there, it didn’t seem like it was, you know, just clearing everything out and just building mindlessly. You know, tracks for houses and stuff. It seemed that everything was very intentional.

And I think that that does speak well to, um, you know, how they are balancing rural, urban, and other areas. And on another note, I’m also really interested in how this organization’s role goes beyond saving the wild spaces from development. There’s more of a sense of keeping development in check and also ensuring that the people who are living and moving here as part of the larger ecosystem, that their quality of life is a major factor in how Bend grows.

And so there are a lot of creative ways to help manage that balance of, of people in need and nature, which I think, you know, really comes into play with what you’re talking about. 

David Archer: Yeah. And one thing that Ben talks about a little bit in this conversation is he mentions, uh, the water supply and, you know, how taking care of the land outside the city provides the water for the people inside the city.

And so it’s a, it’s definitely a, a symbiosis that way. And in many other ways. Any other thoughts about this interview? 

Sara Raymond de Booy: I think one of my other key takeaways from this conversation was that Ben gives us all some key baby steps to take in order to feel like our voices are heard a bit more and maybe feel like change in our community is something that an individual like us can actually influence.

Even if you live a busy life, it doesn’t always need to be a saga to advocate for what you want in your community. And so I think this conversation was a good reminder of that. You know, taking that first step always seems to be tough because you have opinions and concerns about the future of the place you live, of course, but you don’t always know where to go to make those productive.

And it, it seems like it’s such a daunting task, you know, and the other option is just, Let your thoughts die on the toxic comment section of a local blog or something like that. 

David Archer: And that’s satisfying in the moment, but maybe not productive, right?

Sara Raymond de Booy: So it’s like, where do I, you know, I’ve put all this effort into writing this very, uh, thought out well thought out thing.

Where does it go now? So in a way, this, this conversation is a little bit of a pep talk from Ben. You know, you, you spent energy thinking those thoughts up about your community. Go let them live their best life. Don’t keep them to yourself or in a group chat. If you don’t want to, if you want them to go further, there are places where you can help them to go further quite easily, hopefully.

So yeah, so main takeaway, just getting back to your question, David, is basically organizations like LandWatch exists, and you can use them as a resource and not just as a tourism person, but as an individual, they can really help you to get informed on how the community is changing. And they might already have the tools and the roadmap built to help you amplify your voice.

So it was something that I, I really liked from this interview. 

David Archer: That’s a very good reminder. Chances are someone’s already working on the issues you’re interested in. Uh, so join them. I like the sound of a pep talk too. So let’s go over now to listen to your conversation with Ben Gordon and hear what he has to say.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Might even be a pep talk. 

Ben Gordon: Uh, my name is Ben Gordon. I’m the Executive Director here at LandWatch. I use he, him pronouns and Executive Director is sort of a catch-all for ensuring that this team is on the rails pointed in the right direction to achieve our mission driven, uh, work. And, uh, in any given day, it’s the principal fundraiser, driving strategy, supporting the staff to, you know, have the resources they need to achieve everything that they set out to on behalf of the organization and for themselves professionally.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And how long have you lived in Bend? 

Ben Gordon: Um, coming up on 18 years. So moved here in 2006, uh, was  fresh off of a through hike of the Pacific Crest Trail and, uh, discovered Bend en route, made a note to perhaps check it out when we were done with our, our trip, uh, finished and decided Bend’s where we wanted to put down roots.

We weren’t sure how long that would be for. Um, but 18 years later, I think it’s safe to say it’s going to be for awhile. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And what would you say makes Bend different to any place in the U.S.? 

Ben Gordon: Mmm, that’s a good question. The way that I describe it, and I do travel a fair bit, and every place I go I’ve kind of got my, my uh, antenna up for a place that I would prefer living in more than Bend, and I haven’t found one yet.

And a few of the things that really compel me to, uh, love living here have to do with access to the out of doors, so whereas some places offer more grandiose mountains or a more extreme version of the out of doors, Bend has incredible access to a varied landscape in 360 degrees. Pairing that with a very amenity-rich town that Bend has always been and is increasingly becoming, that combination is pretty unbeatable for me.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And did you ever think that this would be your career path? 

Ben Gordon: Conservation, I did, but it was a non-linear decision and path to get to my current role. And I had some really terrific mentors earlier in my career who were executive directors, and I have to say that they took me under their wing. They showed me enough to make me interested, but sheltered me from some of the more challenging parts of the job.

And so if I knew everything about what the job entailed back then, I’m not sure I would have set my sights on it. But thanks to them, it’s where I found myself, and I’m very grateful for it. I really love the work. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So how would you describe Bend to someone who’s never been here? 

Ben Gordon: Uh, I’ll use a description, uh, that a friend of mine gave me, which is if REI made a town, it would be Bend, Oregon.

Um, some of that’s a little hokey maybe, but, uh, if you think about the, you know, sort of when someone goes into an REI shop from the, the visuals, uh, the experience that’s curated in there, it’s all about inspiring you to, you know, want to, um, take your toys and use them in the out of doors, but it’s also about giving back to those places.

There’s a lot more to this place than just that, but I think it’s a fairly apt introductory description for somebody who’s never been here. Probably conjures in the imagination some of those other favorite places that someone has been. For a lot of us, having grown up in a place that I didn’t feel particularly connected to, which is Maryland.

I didn’t really know what it could feel like to experience a, like, a sense of place as a definition of what it means to be home until I came to Bend. So, you know, backing that out, I’m an outdoors-oriented person. I think a lot of the folks who find themselves here, they, they come for the outdoors, but they stay for the community.

I think that ties back to that analogy as well. It’s sort of like, brought here for a sense of, sense of place, probably tied to a sense of purpose, which is experiencing the outdoors and along the way realizing there’s a really terrific human community here, um, that I think, uh, for myself and for others, convinces people to stay and make it home.

Sara Raymond de Booy: So, how would you say Bend has changed over the past decade? 

Ben Gordon: It’s been a formative decade. Um, we saw, you know, the last big, uh, housing market boom. Started to come off its highs around 2005. And then we reached, uh, in hindsight, kind of a trough where the value of homes came down significantly until about 2012.

And then we’ve seen this sort of rebounding that has inspired a new wave of in migration and, and people being interested in, in Bend. During that time, obviously we, we lived through the pandemic and that was a real accelerant for growth, but, um, it was sort of already on a track where as the economy as a whole was rebounding, Bend seemed to get a lot of attention and investment.

And through that started to see, you know, more amenities coming online, Restaurants, more concerts, just generally a bit more of a buzz around town, and more development. When the economy stalled around 2008, there were a lot of, um, subdivisions and other developments that were underway. So they were sort of stubbed in, but they never ended up being built.

And so as the economy came back, those places started to be built and then sort of the next phases of expansion started to happen as more people took an interest, uh, in moving to Bend. And so it’s been a time, uh, defined by market growth, growth has various connotations, some positive, some negative. And I think it really depends on who you are and what your perspective is about.

this place and your hopes and dreams for it. But I would say that Bend has certainly seen a steady, uh, increase in population, uh, and a trend towards, um, growth. Obviously our population alone has increased fairly significantly during that time. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: We’ll get into a lot of the challenges as this, as this goes on.

But what, uh, from that change, do you think it’s been from the better for the better? 

Ben Gordon: Uh, that’s a great, great question and a good frame. Um, you know, I sort of mentioned some of the amenities. So the out of doors are pretty hard, uh, pretty hard to beat. They’re pretty hard to improve upon. It’s an incredible, uh, natural setting that, um, that we started with.

And so what I have seen is a lot of intentionality around the types of businesses that are choosing to open here. Um, the types of housing developments, the development projects that are coming up here, where there’s a real orientation towards having, you know, open space, common spaces, you know, more clustering, more higher density development to avoid a sprawl pattern, and then more kind of infill of amenities, and so more parts of our city.

Um, have more, uh, amenity offerings than, than they used to. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And how’s the community reacting to the change? What’s the… 

Ben Gordon: It’s mixed. As, uh, as change tends to, it tends to come with mixed reviews, but I think, um, I’ve noticed there, there have been a couple of decisions made. Some folks say, I don’t like the change.

It feels too big. And I know people who have chosen to leave. And at the same time, I’ve seen a lot of people come here because, frankly, they lived somewhere else that didn’t feel like home. Um, That was far too crowded, uh, too congested, too much traffic, too much noise. And they find a place like Bend and then in their minds, they go, I would much rather live there.

How do I make that happen? And so I think people who are able to make that jump and come here, come with a lot of gratitude and that pervades the community in a really uplifting way. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So that kind of leads us to LandWatch. If you could tell us a bit about the organization and what it does. 

Ben Gordon: Sure. Yeah.

LandWatch is a, uh, we’re an all lands environmental watchdog for Central Oregon. So the organization has been around for about 38 years with a mission to defend and plan for central Oregon’s livable future. When we updated our mission just three or four years ago, it was towards this livable future that is intentionally broad.

It’s somewhat vague, but I think for each person who has experienced all the bend has to offer, what an incredible place it is. The flip is, imagine if Bend wasn’t that. What would it, what would it be missing? What would be different? And so I think people can quickly realize, like, Oh yeah, there are a whole bunch of things.

Whether it’s access to the, to the outdoors, or, um, you know, we’ve got incredible lakes and rivers, uh, diversity of, of water sports and offerings for fisher people and the like, and if all of a sudden, you know, the drought condition and the way that our water resources were managed, we’re preventing people from being able to experience the lakes and the rivers, as an example. That would be one of those things that would make it very unlivable and very quickly and so as an organization we’re focused on the most critical environmental issues of our time. Those can change rapidly or we can see something well in the future that we know, we want to kind of head off at the pass. And either way we kind of align the organization and its resources to meet the most challenging, uh, environmental issues of our time.

Sara Raymond de Booy: You mentioned you’ve been around for more than 30 years. What’s the origin story there? What’s the need that LandWatch was great to solve? 

Ben Gordon: Great question. Uh, LandWatch really started as a, uh, a party of one. We have a founding executive director, a person named Paul Dewey, who is an incredible environmental attorney.

And Paul was living in sisters that long ago. He was, uh, working as a ranch hand, uh, living with a girlfriend. Uh, had gone to law school, but it got into corporate lawyering and it really wasn’t for him. And so he was taking a breather, but couldn’t help himself. Noticed a few things were awry, uh, on the Sisters Ranger District in the, the federal forest and, and had some questions about some of the clear cut, uh, timber harvesting that was occurring.

And when Paul went to talk to, uh, to the head ranger and asked, what’s the deal here? It seems pretty heavy handed. And, you know, what was the public process to approve these forest thinning projects? project. Uh, the Forest Ranger said, look around, you’re in timber country. Nobody cares about these issues, but you mind your own business.

And so Paul started to ask around in the community, are you aware of these big timber sales? You know, do you think there’s, there’s something that we should do about them? And the community said, absolutely. We’re very concerned. We had no idea. It turns out that those were timber thefts, that there were some handshake agreements that were allowing timber harvesters to come in under the cover of darkness.

Uh, and, and do this pillaging of public lands. And so Paul was basically the whistleblower there and having, uh, you know, a positive effect on the environment. The community asked Paul if he would be willing to, uh, do some more work on behalf of the local environment. And what came out of that was the creation of an organization, uh, with a nonprofit status that essentially was used to fundraise from the public to continue to support Paul, this attorney doing environmental work.

And that was really the, the size of the organization for a couple of decades. And it was kind of episodic or, you know, pointed at one, one issue or another in, uh, seemingly somewhat of a piecemeal fashion, but really anything that came, uh, came up as a big environmental concern, Paul would address it. Uh, and then the organization has since really, uh, emerged as the region’s leading environmental watchdog.

Um, the organization from 38 years ago with one attorney looks very different now. We have 13 full time staff. Our work takes on a breadth of programs. An urban program called Cities and Towns. Um, I know we’ll get to this later, but, uh, trying to establish complete communities across our, our urban landscapes within Central Oregon.

We have a program that’s called Rural Lands, but it’s essentially the other side of that, the other side of the, uh, urban rural coin, which is if we’re citing development thoughtfully so that the spectrum of needed housing is being provided in these urban spaces. Then we don’t have to sprawl and sacrifice our farms and forests.

Uh, some of the resources that make living here as remarkable as it is. And then we have a third kind of, uh, leg of the stool, which is our wild lands and waters program. So wild lands, it’s federal forest oversight, making sure that the agencies that manage all of our public lands in trust, as they’re making big impactful decisions about how to manage those lands, taking into account, uh, preserving wildlife habitat, uh, a changing climate.

And making sure that we’re planning for the future responsibly and then advocating for the in stream needs of the Deschutes River Basin, which is very much the lifeblood of our communities here in Central Oregon. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And of those projects that you’re working on, which ones are you most proud of? 

Ben Gordon: Uh, they all come together pretty nicely to give me a profound sense of pride, uh, to work for this organization.

A project that I’ve really enjoyed the organization taking on is called Save Skyline Forest. Um, so I was mentioning if you look out this window far enough, uh, kind of over my right shoulder, Skyline Forest is a 33,000 acre private timber property that sort of, um, buffers the city of Bend. So it’s sort of like western endpoint with the Three Sisters Wilderness.

And the central cascade mountains where Mount Bachelor is. If you’re a skier this time of year, you’ve probably been up there. And so it’s, it’s massive. It’s as big as the city of bend and it is for sale on the open market. And so right now we’re fortunate because the current owners, they’re a, they’re a quiet neighbor.

They manage it for, uh, it’s timber resources. They’re a good stewards of the land, but that’s the, the fate of that property becomes uncertain depending on who the next owner is. And so as a, as a community and as a community-led effort, LandWatch is working to save Skyline Forest from speculative development, from it becoming a large-scale luxury housing.

And, uh, instead having it become part of the, um, the public domain, seeing it become public land with a, a very thoughtful overlay of recreation, uh, that balances wildlife habitat considerations, uh, wildfire protections for the community, making sure that, you know, all the natural resource values that we derive from that property today, we continue to in the future.

So that’s a project I’m very proud of. You know, it’s, it’s still very much, um, while the community desperately wants to see the property protected, it’s on the open market, uh, and it seems to be fetching a real or asking a real premium price. Uh, and so we’re, we’re hoping to, uh, we’re hoping that the seller sees the real value of the property as, um, uh, a conservation and community asset for this community.

Um, so we’re, we’re focused on trying to make that, um, public land once and for all. It’s a big project for us. Within the cities and towns realm, we just wrapped up our legislative session. Actually, today was the end of the short session. Uh, one of my colleagues, Corie Harlan, has been very active in working with the governor and her staff to shape a housing package that, uh, coming from the state level, that’s, it’s resources, um, and expediting workforce and affordable housing throughout the cities in Oregon.

And with Corie’s good work, there was a real emphasis on making sure that Central Oregon has the resources it needs to address one of the most pressing issues of our time. So I’m very proud of that. How we’ve shown up, uh, on that matter. And obviously it’s not resolved. We’ll continue to work on it, but that’s a, that’s a point of pride in our rural lands program.

We’ve recently, uh, through the court system. So that, that program employs three attorneys, their land use attorneys, and they’re focused on having the Board of County Commissioners, which makes decisions about land use applications, uh, which applications get approved. Oregon has a land use planning system, and it’s really designed to incite growth in the cities.

And in exchange, preserve the farms and forests, uh, as I mentioned before, from, from sprawl. And so, the only way that there is a, um, a defense mechanism built into that system Is to have a watchdog entity. And that’s how, that’s what the role that LandWatch serves in. So our attorneys have been very, very busy, challenging decisions that this board of commissioners has recently made about, uh, applications being approved for development, one of which, uh, a very big, uh, ranch property.

Applicant wanted to turn a 710-acre ranch into a 10-acre home sites. LandWatch raised some concerns about the implication that that type of development would have on an intact farming community. And sort of these incongruous needs and so been able to elevate that one to higher courts, you know, litigation can come with some negative connotations, but in the case of Oregon, that really is a necessary tool for ensuring that the land use system is upheld.

And for so many people who come here, both for the outdoors, but also, as I mentioned before, those intrinsic values we all derive from the open spaces that surround and circle bend and making sure that we continue to have that sense of place. Requires constant vigilance. I’m very proud of my team for putting up an important stand against some of that unchecked development that would fundamentally change the character of our community, I think, for the worse.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And do any of these initiatives compete? How do you find some balance between some of those? 

Ben Gordon: That’s a great question. They tend to work together. I would say that of all the parts of our work, where we see flashpoints or tension is around the use of water resources. We have this part of the rural lands program is ensuring that we have a, an agricultural land base that somebody who wants to practice agriculture here is able to, and what makes land agricultural oftentimes has to do with whether or not it has water and water rights.

And so there’s this, there are these dueling interests of making sure that the Deschutes River and the river system has the water resources that it needs while simultaneously promoting the need to keep water resources tied to farms so that they, they stay as agricultural. And that’s, it’s not insurmountable, but it, it can create some tension for us as we think through the, the dynamics of what our programs are working to accomplish.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And would you say that a lot of people within the community are aware of the work that you’re doing? Or is it, is it behind the scenes a little? 

Ben Gordon: Um, it’s both. I would say that this community is, you know, Becoming increasingly aware of the work that LandWatch is doing, um, about four years ago when I joined the organization, the board had, you know, they were transitioning the organization from its founding Executive Director, who I mentioned, uh, was a terrific environmental attorney, but I think he’d be the first one to admit that he was a reluctant Executive Director and out of an abundance of caution, really preferred to keep the work under wraps.

And so it was not a household name for about 35 years. And so the board was very interested in changing that. And really sort of bringing the community, uh, closer to the work and, and helping the community understand how what we’re doing benefits everybody who visits this place and lives here. So in the last four years, I think we’ve seen quite a bit of, um, increased name recognition, and we’re certainly seeing the community turn out in support.

Uh, a lot of the work that we do is educating. So, uh, educating the public about all of these decisions being made at the local city council level or the county commission level or at the state level. Sometimes they’re federal matters and making sure that people know what decisions are being made, what’s at stake and, and how each person can participate to, to shape the outcomes that, you know, collectively we’re all hoping will be the case.

And so we’ve had a lot of advocacy participation, which is terrific. You know, a few indicators, our listserv, our, our email universe has grown significantly, many thousands over the last few years. And so. There’s that evidence that, uh, our, our reach is increasing that, uh, you know, increasingly the community is, is with us and values the work the organization is doing.

Um, but also just being a member of this community and coming into contact with any number of folks who clearly are paying attention to the issues LandWatch is taking on because they’ve got, you know, two, three, four things top of mind, uh, whenever I bump into somebody. So that’s anecdotal, but I think it’s an interesting data point because throughout central Oregon, not just here in Bend, people are, are clearly paying attention in part because We all love this place and we’re concerned about its future.

Sara Raymond de Booy: With the community, and your work with them, I guess, if we switch over to talking about communities in, in towns and cities, how do you define a complete community? I know that’s something that’s important for the organization. 

Ben Gordon: Yeah, absolutely. So, um, complete communities, in some ways, I think you, you know them when you see them and you, uh, you also recognize when a community is incomplete.

And right now we’re dealing with a, in particular, an affordable housing crunch where, um, we’ll take young people, uh, as an example of a demographic. When I came here myself 18 years ago, my wife and I were able to get by on a ski instructor’s salary, and, uh, I believe she was working at an outdoor gear shop.

And so, you know, just the cost of living here was significantly lower, and so, uh, workforce was able to afford housing in any part of the city, everything else extrapolated out, whether it was food or, you know, the cost of transportation and on it goes. And what we’re seeing today is the workforce is increasingly unable to make the decision to stay here for financial reasons alone.

So when we get to complete communities, even just the cost of housing, making sure that as building is taking place here. We’re thinking about providing the spectrum of needed housing. I think historically there’s been a bit of a, a trend toward luxury housing, you know, developers, more expensive finishes, things like this.

They’re able to charge more for that housing. We’ve also seen that become exclusive. And so what we want is for our communities to be inclusive. There are a few components, transportation for all. So transportation options, that’s somebody who wants to ride in a motor vehicle. They can certainly do that.

There’s safe infrastructure, but if they want to walk, ride, or roll, there’s also infrastructure for that amenities nearby. It’s not housing in one place and the amenities several miles away, but instead how do we incorporate some amount of the amenities that people rely on on a daily basis, whether that’s the grocer or the doctor, any number of other shops and services, a coffee shop, things like this, you know, um, amenities that, if you have them nearby, you’re able to walk to them. They greatly enhance your experience in the day to day. 

Thinking about the, the non-built environment as well. So green spaces, um, that they’re open spaces, that it’s not a, you know, overly burdened, uh, tall urban forum, but instead if we’re going to add density in there, again, making it complete, we recognize that.

Well, uh, you know, one option is to have large single family lots. Not everybody can afford that. And frankly, that may not be the best thing for our society as a whole. And so providing a mix of housing, as I mentioned, that also has, um, what we think of as neighborhoods, excuse me, neighborhoods and nature nearby.

It is more than any one thing. It is complete. So transportation, access to nature nearby, uh, housing options, and You know, all of that within a fairly compact form. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And are there examples within the U.S. or even the world that you look up to? Yeah, absolutely. 

Ben Gordon: Sure, um, so I grew up in Maryland and there are a few, uh, initially they were called smart growth communities.

So, um, the way that it, it started out was, uh, we’ll say first floor retail. Um, Andres Dewani, New Urbanism, it’s a, it’s a design form that is, uh, It’s more natural than, you know, the typical urban form. King Estate is a place back in Maryland where I grew up where, you know, unfortunately, it started out as a farm and it was converted away from that, but recognizing that all of us, we all need housing.

And so I think as, you know, as our human populations grow, there’s the need to think more long term about the impact of converting farmland, forests, other open spaces for housing, um, and making sure that we’re being as, um, thoughtful, as intentional as we can be as we’re, we’re building those spaces. So that that’s one example, but I think, um, you know, if you find yourself in Portland, Northwest Portland, there’s, there’s a lot of it where there’s sort of a, a mix of, you know, cottages, uh, cluster cottages.

Maybe there’s a few, uh, townhomes, some apartments, and there’s some single family, and then interspersed within there, there’s the coffee shop, there’s the grocery, there’s schools nearby, there’s bike boulevards and lanes that somebody who wants to get out of their car and experience, uh, commuting by other modes is able to.

Here in Bend, uh, kind of the first complete community that was created is, uh, right outside of our office here. It’s called Northwest Crossing. Um, Northwest Crossing was sort of built around those same tenets that you want to, through your, your urban form that includes nature nearby, create a kind of a sense of community and that it is real, like a neighborhood feel, that people are out of their cars, there are parks, um, woven into the streets where houses are, and then again, nearby are shops and, you know, places where, where folks go to work, schools.

It’s sort of, everything is, Um, and you don’t have to spend a lot of time in your car getting between the things that you rely on, um, to meet your daily needs. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: How does tourism play into, to all that with, within a complete community? 

Ben Gordon: Sure. Um, I think complete communities are very desirable for tourists as well.

You know, think about some of your, if you’re like me, some of my favorite trips are where I feel like I’ve, I’ve gone to see a beautiful place or experience a terrific city, but I also feel maybe I’m not a local, but I get a glimpse into what it’s like to be a local in a place. And I find that I’m most able to do that when I’m out of a motor vehicle.

So maybe I’m using a bike share and I’m riding a bike around a place. And if there are many destinations in close proximity to one another, I’m a coffee drinker. I like a health food store perhaps, or maybe I want to go check out a local, a gear shop or an art exhibit or maybe I want to see if there’s a kind of a downtown, uh, promenade and if I can find a few of those things, that I might stitch together an outing. And along the way I’m, you know, i’m seeing local people, um, living their everyday lives. And i’m getting a sense of what it might be like to live in a place, and so in a sense I get to sort of experience that, you know, even if it’s just a moment in time. But I think that, that complete community, um, you know, urban form with intentionality that includes nature, it really does inspire tourism as well.

I think people want to be in those places, whether you, you’re just a visitor, uh, perhaps as a visitor, it inspires you to want to come back and spend more time and move there. So I, I do think that, um, this type of development is both compelling for someone who, who wants to make it their home, but also I think it, uh, probably, um, more desirable.

As a tourist, then you might experience with longer urban blocks and greater um, expanses that you have to cover, um, you know, because of safety or just because of the infrastructure that’s there, um, by automobile. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So you, you have a town that’s already established and you’re not starting from scratch, so how hard has it been to modify something that already exists to, for better livability and to make it a complete community?

Ben Gordon: Yeah, um, that’s a good question. I think in some ways, you know, the way that Bend has been developed, it’s been a lot of single family housing. There’s a lot of space woven into the fabric of our urban growth boundary. There’s actually, Bend expanded its urban growth boundary, which is more or less the footprint of the city and in Oregon.

When you’re outgrowing that amount of land, a city can apply to the state for more developable land, but it’s a fairly involved process, and you really have to prove a need in order to justify the expansion. So in 2016, Bend expanded its urban growth boundary, and right now, within our urban fabric, there are approximately 2,000 acres of land that’s been approved for urbanization that hasn’t yet been developed.

So I think, unlike a, you know, say, a place that’s been a city for a longer amount of time, Bend has a lot of space to, um, to build up, to densify, but not in a way that’s too overbearing or really changes what it feels like to live in Bend, but really to more efficiently utilize, uh, our urban spaces so that we can meet some of these pressing issues around housing.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Is there any advice you’d have for someone who really does want to make those positive changes in their own community, town, or, or city, or even neighborhood, but feels like they’re really up against a machine, or culture, and just habits that are already existing? 

Ben Gordon: Yeah, you know, I think if you focus on Bend specifically, um, anybody who wants to get involved and make a difference, this is a, this is a place where civic engagement is really approachable.

I’ve noticed, uh, in my career, the city councillors, for example, they make themselves available. They genuinely want to hear like, you know, what the, what the pressing issues are, the concerns are for the community. Unlike bigger cities where there’s a lot of red tape to say, actually have a conversation with the city councillor.

This is a place where The odds are good that you’re going to bump into them, you know, just on the street, and they would be amenable to having a conversation about, you know, folks hopes and dreams, and what is and isn’t working, and, um, you know, to see that turn into action, that’s a lot of what LandWatch does, right?

We hear from the community often, whether it’s a site-specific project that’s being proposed, and maybe some of it is good, but some of it needs to be addressed. That’s a role that LandWatch plays as a watchdog, but a lot of what we do is we inspire others to – we, we give them a pathway into public participation, which I think as people start to do it and experience it, they realize that it isn’t very daunting.

It actually is very approachable. And obviously the, at the national level, it’s very hard to feel like you’re making a difference. And so the beauty of getting to act locally, especially when the decisions are, you know, they’re, they’re so obvious and you feel them in your day-to-day. Um, I think it does inspire a lot of action.

And obviously when you, when you have a good first experience, uh, you have staying power and, and you want to continue forward with it because you see that your, your efforts really can make a difference. So, I think Bend is one of those communities where that is still possible. And as an organization, we hope that that’s one of the, one of the sweet spots about Bend that we retain as we grow.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And how would that translate to somebody in a larger community if they don’t have the same, um, access to city council members as you might? Find yourself with here. 

Ben Gordon: Yeah, and you know, the city council is just one example. I think, um, these advocacy organizations like Central Oregon LandWatch, sometimes they can be perceived as edgy, right? Because there it isn’t always a like a go-along-to-get-along sensibility that we work with, you know. We have a, we have a vision. We’re very clear about the environmental concerns that we have and how to remedy them and how to ensure that we have water to go around, that we’re managing our forests so that wildfire doesn’t befall this community, those types of issues.

And so a watchdog organization is really the best place to start. So for anybody that is, um, you know, wanting to get engaged in whether it’s local, uh, environmental issues or social, social justice issues, finding those organizations in your community that are, they’ve foundational work. I think one of the propositions that, uh, as a watchdog organization, we offer to community members is people who don’t have.

The wherewithal, they don’t know the issues as intimately as LandWatch’s staff do. LandWatch is here doing this work every single day, digging in, really coming to understand the issues and what we can do about them. And the proposition, the value proposition is that other people who get involved with us, we’re gonna give folks the information that they need to participate.

But they’re not going to have to spend all that upfront time becoming an expert to even understand what the issue is and what kind of changes can be made. And I’d say LandWatch is one of many organizations across this country and the world doing similar work. So somebody who wants to plug in in their community, just getting started, get to know the, you know, if it’s environmental, get to know the conservation, uh, players in your space, most likely if they’re anything like our organization, they’re offering one on ones and kind of get to know opportunities, maybe it’s speaker series and just start to.

Start to understand the issues by getting involved with those organizations and then it’s really sky’s the limit because most organizations just like LandWatch, we greatly value when people come to us and say, I want to write my own testimony and I want to get before the board of commissioners or, you know, I really want to be an advocate.

That’s our, that’s our love language. And I think that we’re, you know, we’re not unique in that. Every place has its organizations that are doing this foundational environmental watchdogging. And so for anybody interested. Seek those opportunities out in your community, wherever you are. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: I know we’ve spoken a lot about how the community can get involved with your work.

Um, and I guess, how would you say that your work right now also involves or impacts Indigenous communities in the area? 

Ben Gordon: Yeah, so um, we’re on the ancestral homelands of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs here. And over the years, uh, LandWatch has had a terrific partnership with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Our founder, actually served as one of their attorneys. He’s currently on the board of the museum at Warm Springs. But as an organization, a deeper, more authentic partnership with the tribes is hugely important for us. But we also recognize that we want that to be, um, of value to the tribes. Uh, we’ve seen how, you know, there have been efforts by organizations to try to impose on tribes.

And we recognize that they have, a lot of challenges that they’re dealing with, and you know, their community, they’re very focused on taking care of their community. And so we want to show up as a partner and have our efforts support whatever their priorities are. And recently we’ve found a few, uh, matters of shared priority.

One of them is a matter of sovereignty. Uh, so water and first foods, fish, uh, LandWatch, Tribes of Warm Springs are co-litigants. Uh, we, we’ve taken a development application for, uh, a destination resort that has the potential to consume many millions of gallons of water out of the Deschutes Basin. And so we’re, we’re taking that application to the, uh, the Court of Appeals together.

Uh, and raising issues, um, alongside one another to stand up for those matters of sovereignty for the tribes. Uh, we have another project right now, which is a, um, ungulate-safe passage. So, uh, Highway 20, which runs through Central Oregon. There’s a stretch between, uh, Sisters and Suttle Lake that’s been identified by the state as having, uh, some of the highest numbers of wildlife and vehicle collisions of any road in the state.

Deer and elk are also first foods for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. And so, uh, we’ve recently started to work with them to identify where we could put in some, uh, wildlife crossings to alleviate some of those collisions, uh, and ensure that, uh, the deer and the elk herds that use that area are able to more safely.

So that’s another, um, burgeoning partnership or, or priority that we share in common. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So just as we start to, to wrap up and kind of zoom out again, um, if you could start LandWatch over from scratch to be more effective or just different, how would you do that? Would you start, would you do anything differently?

Ben Gordon: That’s a really interesting one that, um, you know, I’ve been very focused in the last four years. We’re sort of bringing LandWatch into a new form. So it was a very small watchdog organization that kind of picked and chose its battles for many years. And so right now, I think what you’re seeing is a LandWatch 2.0, uh, where the, the board has essentially said to the current staff, there are so many pressing environmental issues. Our community is behind us. We have some amount of resources to really get specific about, you know, which of the fronts we want to show up on. And so I think the way I described our programmatic work and our alignment to achieve certain very specific things across the landscape is a reflection of the organization that I am so proud to lead and be a part of, which is a very different organization than, than it was just a few years ago.

So if I was starting over, perhaps I would think about, you know, a different charge for an organization, but I feel so fortunate to have joined one that was, you know, so deeply embedded in the watchdog work that we do on behalf of Central Oregon’s livable future. That’s been the, the through line of our DNA for 38 years.

And now we are, I would say we’re being more targeted in our efforts and we’re, we’re seeing more clearly what the opportunities are as we, we’re on the precipice of, you know, this, this climate and this landscape not being able to sustain our human, our wildlife, our fish populations. And so we have some really pressing issues that we’re working to address and it feels like there’s the, the ticking clock or, you know, the race of time.

Um, and so there is this urgency with which we are investing our resources to meet the moment. And so I think for that, there’s no other organization that I would rather be a part of right now, because I do feel that we are making a critical impact at the most important time that I can think of. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And so with some of those topics and issues that you’re tackling, do you think any of those, or which of those, I guess, would you say are a warning for other destinations?

Ben Gordon: Mm. I think Central Oregon has been experiencing rapid growth. We’re a, we’re a high desert ecosystem, and so, you know, we do get a lot of, uh, high mountain snowpack, but even that is changing. And so, I think across the West, communities are starting to have to reckon with the reality that there isn’t an infinite amount of water resources to go around.

And that really does inform what types of development a community is, is able slash willing to take on. So I’d say communities that aren’t yet facing the water challenges of the West know that they’re coming. Uh, I think that they’re inevitable. I think the West is also experiencing a lot more wildfire, a lot more smoky days, things like this that, um, as a community, we always had some amount of wildfire, but it’s a much more prolonged season of smoke.

We’re experiencing more extreme heat. And so I think it’s all kind of like wrapped up in one, which is how we’re experiencing climate change and how we’re preparing to adapt to that. That’s something that other communities, perhaps they aren’t yet seeing it, uh, you know, right there, uh, in front of them the way that we are.

But I would say that other communities would be wise to start planning for a future where summers are hotter, there’s less water to go around. There’s smokier. Those are going to be really important issues moving forward. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And so what do you hope Bend will be like in the future? 

Ben Gordon: Right, back to my, uh, if REI had a town, uh, what I said earlier in this interview.

Um, you know, I think with regards to the complete communities, if we do things wisely, Bend will continue to be a very desirable place to live, in part because of it’s the open space, the access to to nature, uh, nearby, our rivers, our lakes, so we have this natural canvas and kind of how we populate it with infrastructure to sustain our, our human populations and in a way that balances wildlife habitat needs, you know, ensuring that young folks and people that are in need of more affordable housing are able to sort of how we keep our “it factor.”

We started with a really great place and now I think with intention as we envision a growing version of Bend, really thoughtfully using our urban spaces and holding on to those as well. Open farms, forests, wild lands, taking care of our rivers. Um, we’re on a great track to continue to be one of those, you know, most incredible places to live and visit.

Um, and I think if, if we approach growth with intention, we’ll continue to be. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And last question for you, what do you think other destinations can learn from your efforts? What’s the message that you want to leave with them? 

Ben Gordon: I think it has, uh, in order to take care of a destination, it has to be a true partnership with the community. Um, I think that there are some places that, you know, they get, they get wrapped up by being funded by a, a small number of special interests.

Uh, what I love about Bend is it, it really isn’t that place. This is a community that cares, voices its opinions, shows up to the town halls, lets the decision makers know what’s important, and I think any community that is invested in the kind of long-term outlook of, you know, what a place becomes is bound to be successful.

So, uh, any, any other community, I would say, come together, harness your voice, get clear about what you want home to feel like.

Sara Raymond de Booy: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think. And you just heard an interview with Ben Gordon of Central Oregon LandWatch. For more resources and show notes, visit the blog at DestinationThink.com. I’m Sara Raymond de Booy, my co host is David Archer, and he produced this episode and composed its theme music.

Lindsay Payne also provided production support. If you like what you hear, please take a moment to give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps more people find our show. 

We’d like to thank Visit Bend for sponsoring this season of Travel Beyond. 

Next time, we’ll hear from a community member of the nearby Warm Springs Reservation to hear how tourism is impacting that community.

See you then!


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