Why should we care about urban growth in the Pacific Northwest's great cities? Quite simply, their future is our future.

As reported in recent front-page stories in The Daily Astorian and our Pacific County sister paper the Chinook Observer, the outside world has discovered the long-overlooked scenic and historical treasures we occupy at the mouth of the Columbia. This doesn't mean Astoria will grow into a big city. But in a region where some people commute up to two and a half hours - each way in hellish traffic - to jobs on San Francisco Bay, decisions made in Portland and Seattle will have an impact on how our local communities look and on the quality of our lives.

In a fascinating overview that breathes life into the ordinarily dry topic of urban planning, the current issue of Seattle Weekly reports on the debate over Mayor Greg Nickels' plan to lift the city's strict limitation on downtown building heights. Although some question Nickels' motives, there is general agreement that cities can reap great benefits from concentrating growth in their cores, as opposed to sprawling ever outward into suburbs.

Portland is often cited as a leader in this urban renaissance movement, and anyone who spends time there can testify to how dynamic and comfortable its downtown remains. Portland's various distinctive neighborhoods are famous for their livability. But as Seattle Weekly notes, some of Portland's most chic inner areas, such as the Pearl District, are unaffordable to all but the most elite.

A better model, according to Seattle Weekly, is Vancouver, B.C., where there is careful attention to fostering a downtown with street-level appeal and accessibility to middle-class families with children. Instead of hewing to the fashionable urban-planning theory adhered to in Portland of having grown-floor retail space with housing above, Vancouver has modeled itself on older cities like London and Boston where ground-floor residences are prominently distributed downtown.

Even 10 years ago, the ripples from good and bad planning hardly traveled out here to the coast. Today, veterans of these urban struggles are helping make development decisions here. Often, they are buying vacation and retirement property. Though they need to resist the temptation of lecturing us on how to care for our own homeland, these new residents bring us expertise, energy and fresh, clear vision.

By setting a high standard for comfortable living, nearby cities provide examples to emulate. Astoria can reasonably aspire to be as great a city for 10,000 people as Seattle can plan to be for a million. Similarly, every town in our region - from Ilwaco and Oysterville, Wash., to Knappa and Cannon Beach - has special traits to be savored and nurtured. We can and must aspire to greatness, even while preserving our rural charm. A key aspect of this, one that requires prompt attention, is working on preserving affordable and decent housing for ordinary working people.

We should not let any of our towns to become vacation ghettoes or remote suburbs for Seattle and Portland.