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Examining Options for Growth in California

Carol Whiteside is executive director of the Great Valley Center based in Modesto. She can be reached at carol@greatvalley.org. For more information about the Great Valley Center, visit www.greatvalley.org.

 

The California story is about growth. Since the Gold Rush, people have come to California from every corner of the earth, seeking wealth and opportunity, fleeing long winters and harsh governments, and looking for the chance to build a new life. The population has doubled, redoubled and doubled again. Looking ahead, demographers at the state Department of Finance project that our population will continue to grow from 37 million today to more than 50 million by 2040.

One after another, the state’s regions have been developed -- first San Francisco, then Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego, the Inland Empire and now the Central Valley. There have been moments and places of greatness: cities that have planned carefully to fit into the context of their environment, recognizing and protecting their unique assets. But there are many places where capacity does not serve the needs of the public; where farmland, wetlands and even rivers have been paved over, and irreplaceable features have been homogenized into indistinguishable suburban sprawl.

With huge growth yet to come, now is the time to thoughtfully consider California’s future and create a better place. We can learn from the mistakes of the past and design new models and forms that will better serve our diverse, mobile and ever-changing population. There is one important thing to remember as California contemplates its future and how to grow: We have choices. Nothing is inevitable, and the shape of the California in 2050 will be the result of hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of individual decisions that will be made by every city and county in the state.

Positive Signs Abound

In the Central Valley, a region stretching from Redding to Bakersfield, "blueprint" planning processes have given residents and policy-makers a chance to think about growth as a region, moving beyond jurisdictional boundaries to think differently about the connections between land use, housing and transportation. For example, in the Sacramento metropolitan region, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments took on a blueprint planning process encompassing six counties. With the input of thousands of area residents, the region made dramatic changes in growth patterns, renewed a commitment to higher densities in the central city, and set plans in motion to expand the region’s popular regional transit system.

A similar coalition for an even larger geographic area -- the eight counties between Stockton and Bakersfield known as the San Joaquin Valley -- is grappling with a projected population increase of 139 percent by 2040. The San Joaquin Valley Blueprint Planning effort’s multi- jurisdictional and collaborative nature is unprecedented: a voluntary land use and transportation planning project that includes eight separate councils of gov ernment in the region, eight counties and dozens of cities that increasingly under stand their futures are inextricably linked to each other.

Public opinion polls have demonstrated growing acceptance of the concept of regions and regional planning, giving local policy-makers the chance to move in a new direction. Indeed, regulators clearly recognize the role of regions. For instance, as a single air basin, the San Joaquin Val ley ’s air quality is under intense scrutiny with the potential of federal sanctions if clean air standards are not met by 2013.

We should think about the shape and form of development in a region before we take on individual general planning jurisdiction by jurisdiction. There are great opportunities in the San Joaquin Valley to think about local planning within the context of an enormous region, linking growth, conservation, transportation and economic development to a strategy that will evolve over decades.

Three Different Planning Scenarios

Unlike many developed parts of the state, vast areas of open space and farmland remain in the Central Valley. Conse quently, there is an opportunity to set clear policies and establish incentives that will preserve the values and quality of life that people in the region choose -- if we have a big enough vision.

Early each morning, thousands of people leave homes deep within the valley and cross mountain passes for jobs along the coast. We could consider Gateway Cities at Pacheco Pass near San Jose, the Altamont Pass near Livermore and in the Tehachipis south of Bakersfield. These new communities would be self-sufficient cities with housing, jobs, and financial and medical centers at the gateways be tween existing coastal areas and the fertile valley, reducing the polluting impacts of thousands of daily long commute trips and the need for more roads. A gateway development pattern would require a regional commitment to move water, but it could be done as the state begins to think differently about its water future.

Others prefer a strategy of Great Cities: building cities of a million or more people in places such as Bakersfield, Fresno and Stockton, with interconnected transit lines and enough economic heft to be self-sufficient and reduce commuting to coastal job centers. Great Cities would require a lot of attention to sustaining solid neighborhoods and providing the feeling of connection that is now found in the valley’s small towns.

A third group sees the potential of Con nected Cities, a variation of the Great Cities model, but specifically along Highway 99 with transit corridors a half-mile wide, bordered on each side with mid- rise housing and an efficient system that con nects the region’s cities to the east and west, giving people new choices for mobil ity without complicating the air quality challenge that already exists.

10 Ways to Get There

Any of these options can be achieved if we are committed and have the political will to sustain our plans to shape the future and create beautiful, humane, energetic, productive and healthy places to live. But whichever approach is taken, it’s clear that -- based on our state’s history, our limited natural resources and our economy -- there are some ideas we should not lose sight of.

1. Have a big vision. The future un folds over decades. Even though re- sources may be limited, set a goal and build to it over time. Recessions and prosperity will predictably cycle. Don’t abandon the vision because of temporary hard times. Make small decisions that keep moving in the right direction, and take advantage of the boom times to move forward more quickly.

2. Consider the earth. Land is the foundation on which everything is built. Every region has assets, whether they are rich soils, rushing rivers, wetlands, forests or ancient sea beds. Identify and steward them carefully. A healthy environment is the basis for everything else we do.

3. Make great plans. Great places are planned; they don’t just happen. Paris, Sydney, Chicago and Washington, D.C., were all designed to be functional and beautiful. Central Park in New York City and the River Walk in San Antonio were part of carefully made plans, man-made and built by visionary government leaders. We can do the same.

4. Protect the edges. Keeping cities healthy and downtowns thriving requires incentives for rebuilding and infill devel opment. Protecting the edges reduces sprawl and can be done with zoning and general plan boundaries that are clear and consistent. Population growth doesn’t have to mean using more land. It can be ac complished with new and different kinds of housing choices and creative design.

5. Add value with good design. Equity and value increase when neighborhoods are well designed. Creative architecture, parks and trees, right-sized commercial areas and safe sidewalks all add to the value of housing and commercial areas. Savvy developers build communities that work, not just aggregated housing, be cause they understand the value of good design in the marketplace.

6. Build communities that work together. The feeling of connection and community can happen in any size town or city if neighborhoods are well-designed to focus on and increase human interac tion. We lose community when we build walls that separate us, when local shopping areas are lost to mega-stores, and when neighborhood streets are unsafe or uncomfortable for residents’ activities. Consider the social aspects of develop ment with physical design.

7. Start now. Land prices, sewer sys tems, building materials and labor costs all increase over time. Although it costs more to install a sewer pipe that will accom modate present and future needs, in the long run it may be more economical and efficient to buy and build only once. Purchasing land for bus lanes, parks and public buildings when it’s affordable is a good investment of public resources that pays off over time.

8. Look for multiple benefits. Neighborhoods with schools, services and local shops within walking distance provide many benefits. Every time we get into the car for a short trip, we increase air pol lution, consume energy and lose the op portunity for a healthful, satisfying walk. The lost opportunity is even greater for our kids, who benefit enormously from the physical exercise of walking to school and playing outside in unpolluted air. Tree-lined streets, attractive housing, parks and retail should be built for people first, not for cars at the expense of people.

9. Provide incentives. Public investments can be used to shape development. The dollars spent on roads, airports, parks and water systems are powerful incentives for developers. Public investments should lead development, not follow it. Local governments and community members should be proactive and decide the location, pace and scale of new growth, and use their public dollars as incentives to attract development that is consistent with the community’s plan.

10. Keep focused and be flexible. There will always be unexpected events and sur prises that we cannot possibly foresee. Climate change, natural disasters, immigration policy, global economics and new technologies can change our lives almost overnight. While no plan can predict or provide for every contingency, being flexible in the implementation of any vision is essential.

Changing for the Better

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. If we want to build a livable, healthy and humane future for all Californians, we have to do some things differently.