Friday, June 6, 2008

Juneau relishes its isolation -- and fights to keep it

With a population of 30,000 Juneau, the capital of Alaska is not rural by the Census Bureau definition. It is, however, micropolitan by the Office of Management and Budget's definition, and that places it at the metropolitan end of the non-metropolitan continuum. As significant, perhaps, in terms of assessing its place on the rural-urban continuum, is the fact that it is isolated spatially from the rest of the state -- and the North American continent -- due the lack of a road to connect it. The only way in or out of Juneau is by air or sea. Now, however, a 51-mile road has been proposed to connect Juneau to Skagway and Haines to the north.

A story by William Yardley in today's New York Times reports that Juneau residents don't want ot give up their isolation. Here's a short excerpt from this very rich story, which features lots of factual detail and colorful quotes from Alaskans:
Yet beyond the political and environmental fight that will determine whether the nearly $400 million road will ever be built, there is a central question: What would the improved access change the most, Juneau or outsiders’ perceptions of it?

“There is an insularity here,” Mayor Bruce Botelho said, “that I think is a net positive.”

Would the road rouse Juneau residents to emerge from their rainforest isolation and engage the rest of Alaska?

Would it help people in Anchorage, the state’s economic and population center, finally accept Juneau as the state capital, because they would be able to drive there — even if it took two days?

The story certainly suggests strong links between culture and spatial isolation, and it depicts a community's struggle over whether to embrace changes in both.

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