Article Sustainable Cities Julia Lave Johnston

Partnering to Build Better Communities

Julia Lave Johnston is deputy director of planning policy for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and can be reached at

California is a big, beautiful and complex state. As its residents, we want access to quality education, parks and recreational activities. We want transit and housing options. We want clean air to breathe and pure water to drink. And we want to see the mountains that ring our cities, unobscured by smog; to swim in the ocean, lakes and streams without worrying about toxins. As parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we want to pass on the beauty and opportunity of this great state to future generations. We want a more sustainable California.

The California Strategic Growth Council

That’s where the Strategic Growth Council (SGC) comes in. Created by SB 732 (Steinberg, Chapter 729, Statutes of 2008), the council is charged with coordinating the policies, programs and investments of state agencies to support the vision of a more sustainable California.

The SGC defines sustainability as an ongoing process that seeks to balance and improve economic prosperity, environmental health and longevity, and quality of life. In particular, the SGC uses the following standards to measure state agencies’ progress toward sustainability:

  • Improve air and water quality;
  • Protect natural resources and agriculture lands;
  • Increase the availability of affordable housing;
  • Improve infrastructure systems;
  • Promote public health; and
  • Assist state and local entities in planning sustainable communities and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet the goals of AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

Show Me the Money: Proposition 84 Grant Funds

The SGC is charged with allocating funds from the Proposition 84 bond measure to support local planning and implementation of sustainable communities. Cities can apply for three SGC grant programs:

  1. Urban Greening Planning Grants — Approximately $16 million total over three cycles, with about $6 million for the first cycle;
  2. Urban Greening Project Grants — Approximately $40 million total over three cycles, with about $13 million for the first cycle; and
  3. Sustainable Communities Planning Grants — Approximately $60 million total over three cycles, with about $20 million for the first cycle.

At least 20 percent of each round of funding will be prioritized for projects that target economically disadvantaged communities (EDCs). An EDC is a community with a median household income less than 80 percent of the statewide average. An EDC may be a community or neighborhood within a city or county. Projects seeking EDC-prioritized funds must show that the planning to be funded would be primarily or substantially within the geographic boundaries of an EDC. Applicants for an EDC set-aside may also submit one additional non-EDC application. To the extent appropriate, applications for funding from the set-aside should be integrated and coordinated with the entity’s application under the main program, if any.

The SGC has approved grant criteria for all three programs. The requests for proposals are online at  

Urban Greening Planning and Project Grants. To qualify for these programs, an applicant must describe how the proposed project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions consistent with AB 32 and any applicable regional plans. Proposals must also be consistent with the state’s planning priorities that:

  • Promote infill development;
  • Invest in existing communities;
  • Require the protection, preservation and enhancement of environmental and agricultural lands and natural and recreational resources; and
  • Encourage location- and resource-efficient development.

Projects funded through the Urban Greening grants program are intended to create, enhance or expand community green spaces using natural systems or systems that mimic natural systems. Projects must be located within an urban area and provide public access and/or education features where feasible.

Sustainable Communities Planning Grants. The SGC also adopted the following goals for the Sustainable Communities Planning Grants:

  • Fund a variety of planning processes to serve as best practices for communities throughout the state;
  • Support effective and/or innovative local plans that both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and implement the SGC sustainability objectives; and
  • Encourage collaborative projects between regional governments and local governments or any combination thereof that support SB 375 and/or AB 32 at the local level and accomplish SB 732 sustainable community objectives.

Policies, Programs and Technical Assistance

While this broad vision provides a framework for state agency cooperation and partnering with other key stakeholders, it needs to be translated into specific actions that remove barriers and provide guidance in support of its goals. The SGC has a number of working groups that focus on its priorities, which are listed in the SGC‘s work plan, online at, and include the following components.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Technical Assistance Award. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, the Strategic Growth Council and a number of other state agencies — working with the EPA and representatives of the Federal Sustainability Partnership — will identify various types of communities, ranging from small rural to midsize suburban to large cities in California. The team is in the process of analyzing existing state programs and policies to identify which ones help these different types of communities achieve basic sustainability and efficiency outcomes.

State Infrastructure Investment. The SGC is directed to review the state’s five-year infrastructure plan. To improve the state’s infrastructure planning and investment process to meet sustainability objectives, the council is focusing on the processes used throughout California to site new infrastructure.

Climate Change Land Use and Infrastructure Group (CCLU-IN). The CCLU-IN is a multiagency working group convened by the governor’s Climate Action Team and the SGC to identify opportunities for collaboration and coordination among agencies. The group is currently examining the State Climate Change Adaptation Plan and the California Regional Progress Report.

Federal Legislation. Current and near-term federal legislation could play a large role in supporting more sustainable communities in California. The SGC is partnering with other state entities and stakeholders to build statewide support to include California’s objectives in federal bills that address infrastructure, housing and climate change issues.

Data and Information. The SGC is working with the state’s chief information officer to increase accessibility to existing state data and provide additional data to help local, regional and state agencies make informed decisions. For example, the SGC is funding the collection of parcel data and protocols, mapping of protected lands and development of healthy community indicators.

Health in All Policies (HiAP) Task Force. Gov. Schwarzenegger asked the SGC to appoint this task force to identify opportunities for advancing health benefits in SGC agency programs. The final report is due in December 2010.

For More Information

The SGC is committed to working with state, regional and local agencies, stakeholders and the residents of California to meet our shared goals. For more information, visit the Strategic Growth Council website at

This article appears in the July 2010 issue of Western City
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