Between now and 2020 California’s population is expected to surge as much as 50% from current levels yet our ability to provide safe, healthful, affordable neighborhoods continues to grow increasingly problematic. Already, the only state in the nation to post a per capital decline in housing availability over the past decade, it is estimated California needs to add an additional 50,000 to 70,000 houses and apartments each year on top of the approximately 150,000 already built just to keep up with current demand.
This shrinking availability has lead to dramatic increases in housing prices, a marked decline in housing affordability (slowed temporarily by record mortgage lows) and surging land values. But despite these higher land costs, a wave of new and out-of-state homebuilders have entered the California market to take advantage of the strong demand, thereby, creating even greater competition and even greater upward pressures on land costs while pushing the envelope of suburban sprawl further than ever before as builders and developers seek solutions to rising housing costs by building on what is relatively less expensive land located on the urban fringe.
The march of development outward over the last several decades has lead to the consumption of vast amounts of wildlife habitat, farm land, and open space while older neighborhoods at the core of our urban communities have grown blighted and decayed. This pattern of growth which has often been dubbed “urban or suburban sprawl” is coming under increasing criticism as people have begun to re-examine its many impacts on our lifestyles and the environment while questioning the economic wisdom of abandoning infrastructure and services(schools, shopping centers, libraries, water, power, sewer, and trash systems, police, and fire, etc.) in our urban centers only to rebuild them further out along the urban fringe. Of particular concern are rising traffic densities along with an explosion in the number of vehicle miles traveled year by year, increased amounts of particularly harmful small particulate air pollution from automobile exhaust and other sources, increasing water pollution including a mounting number of beach closures due to increased urban runoff from the many new miles of asphault, rising demand for already scarce supplies of clean drinking water, marked increases in the incidences of long-term health problems (such as auto-immune disorders like asthma, cancer and diabetes) especially among children who have been shown to be at far greater risk to factors such as air, water, noise, and light pollution, and even growing changes in weather patterns since ambient temperatures in our urban areas can average as much as 9 degrees warmer than surrounding locales.
Many believe the solution lies in finding ways to reduce our tendency toward this “urban or suburban sprawl”. As such, guidelines and principles dubbed “Smart Growth” by their advocates have been developed to help municipalities and other governmental agencies make wiser decisions when it comes to approving or not approving new commercial, residential, and industrial projects by encouraging these same entities to account for ALL of the costs borne by a community as new development takes place such as the cost of increased traffic, pollution, and the loss of open space, etc. in addition to the near term impacts like the cost of new roads, storm drains, etc. As these guidelines are utilized, it is the hope of Smart Growth advocates that they will discourage development on the urban fringe thereby slowing the consumption of open space, preserving important habitats for a growing list of endangered species, and reducing the explosive growth of vehicle miles traveled while encouraging more “infill” housing in the urban core; thus, taking advantage of infrastructure and facilities already in place in our urban areas as they provide affordable access to employment centers and at the same time infuse greater vitality into some of our most blighted and decayed neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, Smart Growth comes with its own challenges. Although Smart Growth guidelines and principles are often well thought out and are surprisingly similar to those put forth by the building industry (see below), Smart Growth advocates often ignore the very reasons people abandoned our neighborhoods in the urban core in the first place–aging and inadequate infrastructure (sewers, schools, etc.), poorly designed streets and traffic systems that are overcrowded and dangerous to both vehicles and pedestrians, high levels of air, water, light, and noise pollution exacerbated by over-crowding, and crime. While it may seem ideal to restrict development on our urban fringes as we replace dilapidated housing, environmentally challenged “brown fields”, and other blighted properties with even higher density “infill” development in order to more efficiently utilize available infrastructure, encourage mass-transit use, and reduce the demand on scarce land resources, adding more people to an already blighted area does little to reduce air pollution, the demand for clean water, urban runoff and the fouling of our waterways and beaches, long term health problems due to pollution and other factors such as stress caused by noise and overcrowding, and the higher ambient air temperatures of our cities. It serves only to confine our problems to smaller rather than larger areas instead of doing what we need to do– solve them!
In order to do that we must be willing to reach for a new paradigm. By asserting we must stop development from spreading beyond our urban fringe, Smart Growth advocates are conceding that development is in a sense inherently “bad”. That it’s “bad” for the environment, “bad” for our neighbors, and ultimately “bad” for us. But is this in fact true? Of course it isn’t, but poor decision-making during the development process brought about by a desire to save time or money in the short term at the expense of our long term safety, health, and affordability has in fact been “bad” for all three. We do need to account for all of the costs borne by a community when a new development is considered, but we need to consider all of the benefits as well while empowering the community with ways to minimize the impact and enhance the value this change (the new development) will have on its neighbors and the environment.
It isn’t where we grow in the future that is the issue, but how we will grow. Because until we learn to provide neighborhoods that are safe, healthful, and affordable for all; neighborhoods that are clean, comfortable, and balanced; neighborhoods that integrate and enlist nature rather than overwhelm it, and actually add to and improve the lives of all its residents year after year after year, we will continually be challenged to move further and further out from our mistakes of the past.