What If

Smart Growth

Developing schools that serve as centers of their communities is a concept that also has implications for a second important area of reform in the state of California that embodies the "smart growth" strategies for urban and regional planning. As supported by organizations like the Urban Land Institute and the California Futures Network, these principles address issues impacting the overall quality of life of all Californians. These principles are evidenced through a balance between economic prosperity, social equity and environmental quality. These ends require a long-range planning strategy to accommodate growth in a way that promotes prosperous and livable communities; provides better opportunities for housing and transportation; conserves green space and the natural environment; and protects California's working farm and forest lands. Following is a list of the California Futures Network's "smart growth" principles:

  • Plan for the Future: Make government more responsive, effective and accountable by reforming the system of land-use planning and public financing.
  • Promote Prosperous and Livable Communities: Make existing communities vital and healthy places for all residents to live, work and raise a family.
  • Provide Better Housing and Transportation Opportunities: Provide efficient transportation alternatives and a range of housing choices affordable to all residents, without jeopardizing farmland, open space and wildlife habitat.
  • Conserve Green Space and the Natural Environment: Focus new development in areas planned for growth while protecting air and water quality and providing green space for recreation, water recharge and wildlife.
  • Protect California's Agricultural and Forest Lands: Protect California's farm, range and forest lands from sprawl and the pressure to convert farmland for development.

One way to achieve these results is to counteract the current model of sprawl development by focusing more effort on the design of more livable cities and towns. By concentrating higher density development in more urban environments, more of the open land currently being consumed by roadways and housing that are the products of "suburban sprawl" can be conserved as "greenfields," which includes farms, forests and natural habitat.

Over the past thirty years, California's growth pattern has consumed tremendous quantities of land for sprawling low-density development. The Central Valley, the nation's most productive and prolific agricultural region, will be threatened if current sprawling land-use patterns continue. Already, more than 12 percent of the Valley's farmland has been paved over. If this pattern of low-density sprawl continues, the Valley will lose more than one million acres of farmland by the year 2040, much of it on the best soil for growing crops. This represents nearly 20 percent of the Valley's remaining farmland (American Farmland Trust and UC Berkeley). In the meantime, a significant portion of the California economy stands at risk. Agriculture is California's number one industry. In 1996, California's agriculture and related food processing industries employed over 500,000 people and generated $75.6 billion in sales (Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy). Losing a million acres of farmland would cost more than $5 billion annually in lost business for farmers, ranchers, suppliers, processors, and others involved in agriculture.

From 1970 to 1990, the population of Los Angeles increased by 45 percent while the amount of developed land increased by 300 percent (Diamond and Noonan, Land Use in America). Similar development in other metropolitan areas has spawned a massive increase in vehicle trips and vehicle miles traveled by the public, and caused significant environmental harm. Between 1970 and 1995, the state's population increased by 60 percent, from 20 to 30 million people, but the number of vehicle miles traveled (vmt) more than doubled, from 103 billion to more than 270 billion miles of travel per year (California Air Resources Board). Overall vmt in the state is projected to nearly double to 488 billion in the next two decades. The resulting air pollution not only has public health impacts; it also affects agriculture by reducing crop yields at an annual cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sprawling developments consume ever-increasing amounts of land, with the car and its attendant infrastructureÐstreets and highways, street parking and parking lots - taking up at least a third of all developed land. Moreover, this strategy for accommodating growth produces more traffic congestion and loss of productivity; air pollution and its environmental and public health impacts; the loss of open space; the inability of many to reach jobs and services; and the isolation of children from the elderly among other social and environmental problems.

Based on these disturbing facts, there is a growing concern that the traditional means of accommodating growth in California's population is in need of serious reform.