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Launching the Discussion: How Should California Grow?

California ’s booming population growth presents significant challenges for its elected officials, whether they serve at the local or state level. These challenges include providing services - transportation, housing and water, to name just a few - to meet the needs of a steadily increasing number of residents.

Cause for Optimism

Recent events underscore the concerns and efforts of policy-makers and voters alike to address those needs. The passage of the infrastructure bonds package on the November 2006 ballot is a good indicator that California voters think the state needs to devote more money to improving its transportation, highway safety, traffic congestion, housing, educational facilities, flood protection, water quality and parks. The passage of AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act (which requires that the state’s emissions be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050), is another positive sign that policy-makers understand the need to change California’s "business as usual" approach.

We are in a new era where things that worked in the past aren’t necessarily going to work for our future. While local governments and the state are grappling with this new reality, many of us are realizing that we need to find much more aggressive and proactive ways of addressing our most urgent problems.

Looking for New and Better Solutions

Californians are confronted on a daily basis with traffic gridlock and the stress of driving long hours in heavy stop-and-go traffic. While the infrastructure bond package was certainly a step in the right direction toward devoting more resources to building roads and catching up on years of deferred maintenance, more is needed.

The issues of transportation and housing go hand in hand. People who can’t afford a home close to where they work have no alternative to making a long commute. Our adult children are moving farther away because they can’t afford to live in the community where they grew up. Housing affordability is a thorny problem that isn’t going to go away.

Attempting to solve the problem of affordable housing with existing resources is like trying to use a teaspoon to bail out an overflowing five-gallon bucket. Local governments are hamstrung in their efforts to provide affordable housing, stymied by the many constraints on local finance. And the trickle of federal dollars and the limited funds available from the state are inadequate to address the problem. We need a new approach.

We also need to look realistically at California’s transportation challenges. Long commutes mean poor air quality, increased greenhouse gas emissions and a reduced quality of life for commuters and their families. While some of our state’s larger cities and urban areas have done a good job of providing transit systems that enable commuters to get to work without driving, many Californians live in communities where transit options are limited or nonexistent. The number of single- occupant vehicles on roads and freeways is the state’s largest source of global warming emissions. There has to be a better way to move people around.

Another growth-related issue that demands attention is water supply and availability. This is not a new issue, but it appears to be growing in intensity. Scientists tell us that climate change will affect the Sierra snow pack, which is a significant contributor to the state water supply. The debate about the state’s water has been going on for some time now; while no easy answers are on the horizon, this issue is not going away.

The State’s Changing Demographics

Adding complexity to these challenges is the fact that California’s demographics have changed significantly. In the past 25 years, the state’s Caucasian population has remained at about 16 million, while the Latino and Asian populations have tripled. Despite the fact that the state population is now composed of a majority of minorities, voters tend to be older, white, affluent homeowners. As a 2004 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report pointed out, "California is at a stage in its history where a minority white population is in the position of making key policy decisions for a highly diverse society of 35 million people."

The report, The Ties That Bind: Changing Demographics and Civic Engagement in California, looked at whether minorities are involved in civic activities even though they are less likely to vote, and found that they are not. In addition, whites are "overrepresented in California in almost every political activity ... And the voices of the young, minority and low-income families are less likely to be heard in the overall political process."

We must find ways to connect with Californians who aren’t currently participating in the civic engagement process, especially with our younger citizens and families. Their involvement is critically important in seeking solutions that address the needs of all our residents - not just the affluent. It’s imperative that we give them a means to voice their concerns, and that we listen and work together to find solutions.

Looking at the Big Picture

Traditionally, local policy-makers have focused on what their own community wants and requires. The present set of challenges demands that we acknowledge our communities are part of a larger picture. It’s increasingly necessary to consider the community’s needs in the context of California’s broader realities. This means balancing what your community wants with what’s needed regionally or, in certain cases, statewide. We can’t close our minds to these issues. Our unprecedented population growth means things are going to change. Rather than responding to these issues one by one, we must focus on the big picture to find solutions.

It’s time for a rational, strategic discussion to address these challenges. Toward that end, this month Western City is launching a series of articles designed to stimulate the dialogue. Titled "How Should California Grow?," the series presents a variety of perspectives on the state’s major growth-related issues.

"How Should California Grow?" will examine demographics and growth patterns, various scenarios for future development, water supply, environmental concerns, housing affordability, infill, density and gentrification issues, transportation, infrastructure financing and more.

Getting Started

Bill Fulton, who is one of the most prominent thinkers and experts on land use in California and a Ventura City Council member, kicks off the series with an introductory article that is thought-provoking and incisive (see "Plotting a Course for the Next Generation of Growth" on page 10). He encourages elected officials to think long-term about the issues associated with growth and of fers a framework for doing so.

California needs a strategy that looks to the future and sets a course for policy-makers to follow. We can’t afford to post-pone the discussion any longer. Let’s get started now.