Overcast   57.0F  |  Forecast »
Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print Feed Feed

California’s Growth Demands Vision, a Long-Term Plan and Clear Policy Direction


Bill Higgins is a legislative representative for the League and can be reached at higginsb@cacities.org. Previously he was director of the Land Use Program for the Institute for Local Government.


California is in the throes of massive population growth -- it has doubled in size since 1965 and is expected to be home to more than 50 million people by 2040.

This growth translates into tremendous pressures on the state’s resources and ability to provide adequate infrastructure and services. The authors in this series, “How Should California Grow?” (see “About This Series”), have described the challenges created by this growth, including the need to accommodate more housing, provide additional water, upgrade roads and expand transit options. They also presented options for potential solutions, such as using water more efficiently, building higher density housing, reducing reliance on automobile travel and increasing infrastructure capacity.

Our political leaders play a critical role in meeting these challenges. Good leadership is a necessary element to meaningful change, and strong leadership is required at both the state and local level to develop solutions to the issues of water supply, infrastructure, climate change, housing and expanding population needs.

State Takes One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

State officials can do a number of things to take the lead. First, they must set clear legislative priorities. This requires having the courage and vision to follow through in implementing these priorities.

In 2002, the state framed this set of growth priorities for infrastructure in AB 857 (Wiggins), Chapter 1016, Statutes of 2002:

  1. Promote infill and improve existing infrastructure;
  2. Protect the state’s environmental and agricultural resources; and
  3. Encourage sound development patterns by ensuring that land is used efficiently and within areas that are appropriately planned for growth.

The state needs to back these priorities with planning and funding. However, California’s policy-makers continue to send mixed signals to local governments.

For example, despite the goal articulated in AB 32, California’s landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, state officials recently tapped into mass transit funding and shifted it to the general fund needs in order to balance the state budget for FY 2007–08. Cars and light trucks are the single greatest source of these emissions. Put simply, if local governments are expected to adopt development patterns that will encourage transit use and reduce emissions, the state needs to protect transit funding, even when it means finding other ways to balance the state budget. More than any other piece of legislation, the budget demonstrates the state’s true priorities.

State officials need to keep California’s overarching priorities in mind when adopting legislation, even on subjects that are seemingly unrelated. Too often, legislation is introduced to accomplish one priority that conflicts with a second priority that’s already established.

The state density bonus law is another example of such a conflict. Adopted to create an incentive for developers to build affordable housing, the law enables developers to build more units than the density for which the local jurisdiction has zoned -- as much as 35 percent more. Local zoning is based on the community’s determination of what is appropriate and sustainable, and considers quality of life and the capacity of the infrastructure to support more housing. Essentially, the density bonus law overrides these local determinations without any assurance that there is adequate infrastructure or services to meet the needs of the added units.

The density bonus law also misses the mark because it assumes a one-size-fits-all strategy is ideal. As in so many cases, one size does not fit all, and good intentions do not necessarily produce good outcomes.

State policy-makers should keep in mind that it’s both realistic and practical to allow local agencies the flexibility to determine how best to implement local solutions to state policy goals. One-size-fits-all solutions are rarely the best option.

Challenges for Local Leadership

Local leaders also play a vital role in determining how California will grow, but their challenges differ from those of state policy-makers.

First and foremost, once they are given the flexibility to address local needs and concerns, local officials have a responsibility to implement state policies in a meaningful way. There appears to be a perception among a number of state officials that some local communities are too willing to export some responsibilities -- like affordable housing -- to neighboring communities. Local leaders need to address this head on and demonstrate how their local policies will meet statewide policy goals.

Local leaders also need to confront the issue of regionalism. The trend to think regionally in planning is a natural evolution of California’s growth. For most of this state’s history, people lived, worked, shopped and spent leisure time in the same county. But today, someone who lives in Pinole (Contra Costa County) can shop in Emeryville (Alameda County), work in Sunnyvale (Santa Clara County) and meet friends for dinner in San Francisco (San Francisco County). The traditional model no longer applies.

Despite these developments, California does not have a level of government that can directly deal with this new reality. Consequently, it’s not surprising that metropolitan transportation organizations, which were originally developed to distribute federal transportation dollars, have morphed in some areas into regional planning organizations. This phenomenon has been helped, to some extent, by the state housing law that asks this same organization -- except in the Bay Area -- to distribute fair share housing numbers.

Regional associations, such as the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), use the transportation and housing planning processes as a catalyst for addressing regional needs. But this is not an easy or natural role for these organizations. This is not a call for a new layer of regional government, but rather an acknowledgment that finding a decision-making mechanism to fit regional needs will be a challenge for local officials.

Local leaders will have to use consensus, compromise, negotiation, listening skills and an understanding of others’ needs in the region. Our communities are best positioned to make the decisions that fit the needs of their own people, but local leaders must become increasingly aware of and address how their decisions affect the needs of neighboring communities within their regions.

The Role of Individual Californians

Are Californians up for these challenges? Polling conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California and others suggest that while state residents are generally supportive of conservation or transit, they are less likely to see themselves as part of the equation. For example, individual Californians seem to support more mass transit options -- for other people to use (and lessen the traffic on “their” freeways).

How will Californians respond when they are asked to make personal sacrifices to preserve the quality of life for all? It’s one thing to call for the physical changes to improve our way of life, but it’s another to call for changes in our way of life to improve our physical environment.

Take, for example, the issue of climate change. Polling tells us that the overwhelming majority of Californians believe that “something” should be done about it. But to what extent are they willing to buy more expensive light bulbs, support an energy tax to fund conservation, or even live in high density housing near transit to reduce their reliance on automobile trips? These will require changes in the way we live.

Humans are by their very nature resistant to change. The good news, however, is that their resistance can be overcome by appealing to their reason and concern for the future of their families and generations to come. It requires a concerted effort, but it is feasible.

Forging a New Path

Here is an opportunity to be seized. Local and state leaders have the capacity to bring these issues to the forefront of the public’s attention. And history is on our side. The California we live in today is cleaner, better run and has more efficient government services than 40 years ago, despite the fact that its population has doubled. Efforts to improve air quality have produced significant results. Our rivers and oceans are cleaner and our energy usage is more efficient because our residents better understand the consequences of neglecting such things. They have a clear grasp of why it’s important to preserve our economy, environment and quality of life.

But it’s no time to rest on past accomplishments. California’s leaders and policy-makers need to reach consensus on how to address the state’s growth-related challenges. This requires setting clear priorities and developing a vision -- a long-term plan for protecting our fiscal well-being and the fabric of our communities. Our leaders must exercise the discipline necessary to focus on the state’s overarching priorities. Piecemeal policy-making undermines our future and creates a dismal legacy for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Californians deserve better, and our elected leaders are capable of rising to the challenge and laying the groundwork for our future prosperity. There is no time to waste.



About This Series

The 2007 Western City series “How Should California Grow?” has presented a broad array of information about and potential solutions for California’s growth-related challenges. Authors and topics include:

While the opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect League policy, the series was designed to stimulate dialogue among state and local policy-makers.

The entire series is available online.