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So much for California’s anti-sprawl law, continued

Ethan Elkind, director, Climate Program at Berkeley Law | July 14, 2011

My post on the shortcomings of SB 375, California’s anti-sprawl law, generated a swift response from NRDC’s Amanda Eaken and TransForm’s Stuart Cohen, two smart growth advocates for whom I hold a lot of admiration and respect.  In their detailed post, which is largely a critique of the San Diego Association of Government’s (SANDAG) sustainable community strategy (SCS) plan and less about the arguments I made, they describe my post as “poorly informed.”  Yet nowhere do they contradict the points I raise about the inherent weaknesses of SB 375 or the problems with the SANDAG SCS (with which they seem to wholeheartedly agree).

They do cite some examples to counter my claim that SB 375 may just result in a lot of ineffectual regional planning.  They point out that SB 375 has served as a rhetorical weapon against sprawl that may help fight I-5 widening in San Diego and force changes to planned highway projects in the region, all while galvanizing new interest groups to fight for strong SCSs in the long term.  They also claim that because of SB 375, SANDAG has prioritized a few transit projects that it otherwise would not have done and has also spent more on pedestrian and bike improvements. Yet while these victories may be significant in their own way, overall they don’t offer me much hope that SB 375 by itself will do much to dent the long-term growth of sprawl in San Diego.  Certainly this draft SCS does little to prompt the necessary changes in local government land use patterns, bolstering the original fears of land use experts about the law.

Eaken and Cohen proclaim that SB 375 wasn’t intended to undo 60 years of bad planning in California overnight.  But my objection is based on how SB 375 affects growth in a crucial region like San Diego by 2050, forty years from now.  SANDAG’s draft SCS forecasts land use and transportation needs out to that year, yet the SCS appears to do virtually nothing to alter business-as-usual sprawl.  By 2050, one would hope SB 375 could lead to better outcomes than that.

To be fair, their point is that we shouldn’t expect a great SCS right away (although SB 375 has been law for almost three years now).  And I am in complete agreement that there is still time for SANDAG’s leaders to improve the SCS, and I hope they do.  For these leaders and anyone who cares about improving this SCS, I recommend reading Eaken and Cohen’s post for a detailed list of suggestions to improve what is otherwise a weak showing.

Ultimately, however, I question whether this attention to regional planning in California is worthwhile.  In a perfect world, it sounds right.  But in California, regional entities are weak collections of local government officials.  SB 375 certainly doesn’t give them strong tools to implement a smart growth vision, even if that vision were actually good for the region and not just a politically expedient document.

So what else should advocates do?  Well, sprawl is the domain of local governments, as is the compact development that smart growth advocates want.  So why not focus policies on where the problem lies?  Why not harness the energy behind SB 375 instead to improve local government policies, such as removing excessive local parking requirements for infill projects, offering redevelopment funds to catalyze infill sites near transit, and improving local land use plans to encourage infill and walkable development?  I fear that SB 375 has sucked time, attention, and resources away from efforts that are more likely to make a difference on the ground.

We have limited resources in this state to advocate for smart growth and limited time to do so.  If advocates believe SB 375 is the most effective way to expend this effort, then so be it.  But if they’re wrong, then they better think fast about alternative efforts that can accomplish what is truly needed: fewer barriers for infill developers to build good projects in the right places and more infrastructure and transit in the these same areas.

Everything else is just words.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet, a Berkeley Law/UCLA Law collaboration.

Comments to “So much for California’s anti-sprawl law, continued

  1. Elkind seems to question the very value of regional planning, and suggests that limited smart growth advocacy resources would be better spent on improving local government policies. Three points in response:

    1. As most planners know, this is not an either/or decision between SB 375 and regional planning or policies at the local level like reducing excessive parking requirements that can make infill easier. We need both. The regional plan creates the blueprint for growth and aligns transportation investments to support projects that help to reduce GHGs, and we need to work at removing barriers at the local level. In fact, many smart growth groups like TransForm and Greenbelt Alliance are engaged at the local level, through efforts such as the Great Communities Collaborative.1 But simply removing barriers to infill won’t be sufficient if you ignore regional transportation funding because business as usual transportation portfolios will still result in auto-oriented development at the periphery. We have ample literature to document this phenomenon of induced growth. 2 That’s why SB 375 calls for an integrated land use plan and transportation network to meet the target.

    2. Second, cities are not the appropriate scale to conduct sustainability planning because so few people live, work, play, and shop in the same city. Economies function at the scale of the region3. SB 375 critically requires regions to plan for sufficient housing to account for all job growth within the region, because this will help cut down VMT and GHG as well as improve livability. Particularly here in the Bay Area, this is a critical ingredient in creating sustainable communities because hundreds of thousands of households aren’t afforded the opportunity to live in the region where they work. Cities lack the tools or perspective to solve land use planning challenges such as jobs-housing balance.

    3. Need evidence that regional planning can work to affect change at the local level? Look at Sacramento. Local governments are voluntarily implementing the regional blueprint land use pattern not because they are forced to – an improvement to SB 375 which Elkind might prefer– but because these 22 cities and six counties came together to agree upon a better way to grow – as a region. This plan saves 360 square miles of open space, reduces congestion, and saves billions in infrastructure dollars. This improved regional future is sufficiently compelling for cities to keep up their end of the bargain. Take a look at the 5 year anniversary of the blueprint for examples of progress throughout the region 4. The promise of SB 375 is that it builds upon the success of the blueprint program by providing an improved environmental review process and an integrated transportation network to further incentivize implementation of an improved regional land use pattern.

    References (in case hyperlinks don’t work)

  2. If everything built from today forward in San Diego County was perfectly historic city building/TOD/New Urbanism, it would take many years to show any statistical change. Just do the math. I expect that if you look closely at the SANDAG plans, that is shown. It is not an option for local governments to wipe out existing development rights.

    San Diego shares the structural obstacles to becoming more efficient in transportation due to sprawl. It wasn’t an accident in the U.S., but once in place, the speculative real estate market has continued to fuel it. Land appreciation is the quickest way to unearned wealth. Localities they try to keep up with the service commitments they made when land subdivision and development was approved. Making developers pay for infrastructure only added to the cost of the housing – developers pay nothing. Then you have municipal infrastructure being funded at housing market rates, 8 1/2% or more in the 1970’s, instead of municipal bond rates. Another opportunity to unload service costs was to put them in homeowner’s associations where, as fees, they weren’t even deductible as taxes.

    To understand what idea drained American cities of population, one should read: “The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence” by Kathleen A Tobin, Purdue University, Cold War History, Vol.2, No.2, January, 2002.

    This is an unrecognized if not suppressed history of the roots of sprawl in the U.S. as a defensive measure. Surviving a feared nuclear Pearl Harbor was the goal. Dispersion was the strategy.

    Look for it on-line. If you can’t find it, send me an email and I can send a PDF. The suburbanization pattern has led to extreme commuting – 50 miles plus one way – in many regions. It also contributed to the housing cost run-up. Suburban communities, in order to balance the cost of services from residential units, raised requirements so that every new home would pay the cost of any new children that might appear in the school system.

    Low density increases the number and distance of trips. Nothing is walkable, as was the case in all cities and towns up through the 1950’s. Technology can use communication to substitute for some trips, but it can’t get milk and bread.

    Industry should have moved to the suburbs, with the cities retained for housing and services. Transit lines could have been supported from population clusters to industry clusters.

    Everything is so dispersed that huge park and ride lots are needed to collect a few people for a vanpool.

    In the 1970’s, transportation was the 15th criterion used by home buyers in selecting a location. They had a car and could get anywhere in a reasonable time. The newly built Interstates had excess capacity to take commuters into the cities. That didn’t last.

    Dense markets have lots of opportunities and are efficient due to proximity. It can also be a target. Therefore communities develop security and manners so as to benefit.

    This dead hand of historic development patterns can not be altered quickly. Since local governments, counties and cities last hundreds of years, correction will occur. It will take time. It will cost money.

    The fact that few even see the present as any sort of error is also a problem. Keeping a vehicle running will be a priority and ridesharing will be more real time, but it is very difficult for people to live near where they work.

    The high levels of consumer debt constrain everything now. The lack of proximity is a liability. The defensive strategy created on one level some of the problem it was intended to prevent: the cratering of cities.

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