Grappling with regional growth
Regional approaches to growth in California’s four major metro areas
Some of California’s other regions
Articles in our periodical Linkages
Links to web sites and on-line reports
Key books, reports and articles not available on-line

Grappling with Regional Growth

Most Californians live in a major metropolitan area that encompasses many local jurisdictions. Three of these four regions, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, each involve multiple counties and many cities, while the fourth, San Diego, is a single county with 18 cities.

Issues of land use, transportation and air quality all transcend the local jurisdictional boundaries within these metropolitan areas. A 1998 report on Land Use and the California Economy by Steven Levy of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy stated “regions are the critical geographic area for organizing land use decisions in California. Residents and business leaders cannot assess the impact of local land use decisions without a regional perspective. Planning for adequate land for housing, jobs, preservation of unique land resources and open space requires a regional perspective.”

While regional entities, such as Air Pollution Control Boards and Councils of Government, bring a degree of regional focus to transportation and air quality, land use issues remain rigorously the sole prerogative of local governments. This causes increasing problems, on a variety of scales, and is a very significant factor in our endless suburban sprawl across agricultural lands and wildlife habitat. For example, the need to shift investment resources and development back into existing developed areas transcends county boundaries in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay regions.

A degree of land use regional thinking is beginning, as Councils of Government and civic regional initiatives start to propose alternative growth scenarios, particularly for transportation - land use linkages. But it remains to be seen whether these will result in any land use changes at the local government level. Furthermore, as we have seen in other states, effective regionalism requires state leadership and policies - something lacking in California.

Three approaches other than state political leadership may promote some of the changes in metropolitan development patterns that a regional focus would produce. One is the recent shift in state investment of retirement funds and other monies, led by the forward-looking State Treasurer. In 2001 the California Public Employees and Teachers Retirement Systems added over $1 billion to real estate investment programs for urban neighborhoods. Pension funds are the single largest source of real estate investment funding and could shift their procedures to provide the longer term investment needed for Smart Growth projects that change the pattern of development at the regional scale.

The second is attempts at a more integrated planning approach at the County level, as exemplified by a San Diego Comprehensive Plan from the Council of Governments and the Riverside County Integrated Plan. The latter is an attempt by the County to simultaneously address land use, through a General Plan Update, a transportation plan and habitat protection through a Natural Community Conservation Plan / Habitat Conservation Plan.

The third is the promotion of Smart Growth principles at the local jurisdiction level, with a focus on infill, transit oriented development, and mixed use, pedestrian friendly communities.

At the same time, there is an array of other regional-scale approaches on natural resource issues. The premier one is CalFed, which addresses not only the health of the Delta and water supply issues but also upstream watershed management. River and floodplain management plans, such as the Santa Clara River Plan, and some watershed projects can transcend county boundaries. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Comprehensive Study of flood management and ecosystem restoration on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers will theoretically lead to a set of plans at the sub-regional scale. In 2002, the state’s Floodplain Management Task Force recommended a multi-jurisdictional approach to planning and managing our floodplains.

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Regional Approaches to Growth in California’s Four Major Metropolitan Areas

By the fall of 2003, regional projects were well under way in the state’s major metropolitan areas. Here are status reports written at that time.

San Francisco Bay Region

Two independent projects began in the late 1990's, one run by a civic group and one by regional governments. A multi-stakeholder group, the Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities, formed in 1997, spent several years developing a Compact for Sustainable Bay Area, then began development of a Regional Livability Footprint - a land use alternative for the region. Meanwhile, in 1999 five regional agencies including the Association of Bay Area Governments began a project to promote the use of Smart Growth strategies across the region. The two projects merged in 2000, becoming the “Bay Area Smart Growth Project and Regional Livability Footprint.”

Development of the Compact involved extensive input on a draft version through a regional conversation. This Compact addressed the three E’s of sustainability with a commitment to strive to implement proposed actions across the region over a 25 year period. The commitments include advocating and supporting a variety of key Smart Growth features. Examples are residential communities with a mix of densities and housing costs, residential and commercial building near transit stops, a regional open space bond measure, urban growth boundaries with incentives for revitalization and reuse within the boundaries. Most of the region’s counties and many cities have voted to support the Compact. Tools to promote progress on these commitments include a set of Bay Area Indicators to measure progress toward sustainability and a list of best practices.

The Regional Livability Footprint project utilized workshops to consider how to accommodate growth expected over the next 20 years. Participants were supportive of shifting from sprawl to more intensive development of existing communities and along transit corridors, including dense mixed use transit oriented development, second units on single family lots, and other Smart Growth features. Contra Costa County, for example, would retain 2/3 of its land in agricultural production and various forms of open space.

The many scenarios proposed at these workshops gave rise to three land use alternatives to business as usual sprawl. One alternative focused growth into central cities, another into a network of existing neighborhoods and the third utilized Smart Growth strategies in the suburban areas. All three approaches produced much less sprawling development than current trends. In a second round of workshops, participants chose an alternative for each county, to become part of a regional 2020 Smart Growth Vision.

Analysis of the potential impact of the Smart Growth Vision on the use of undeveloped lands at the urban fringe (greenfield development) illustrates the importance of changing growth patterns. Estimates are that business as usual growth in the nine county Bay Area will result in the development of 83,000 greenfield acres by 2020. In addition, there will be development of 45,000 acres in the Central Valley and in Monterey - San Benito counties, providing homes for commuting Bay Area workers stymied by lack of housing within the region. Rapid implementation of the Smart Growth vision will result in just 16,000 acres of greenfield development within the region, and no spillover beyond the Bay Area.

A number of parallel projects aid movement toward this Vision. They include a set of Smart Growth policies adopted by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Area Alliance’s Community Capital Investment Initiative to bring more private investment to the poorest neighborhoods.

Another approach addresses incentives and regulatory issues, including local government financing. The latter is an important issue since the state now controls allocation of local property taxes, much of which have not gone to local governments in recent years. Incentive suggestions include state grants to plan mixed use and transit oriented projects, density bonuses for developers of affordable housing, inclusionary zoning (a requirement that a minimum percentage of new housing units be affordable to lower income buyers) and a variety of local incentives to promote infill development. Regulatory proposals include requiring establishment of urban growth boundaries and streamlining the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process for transit oriented and mixed use projects.

Los Angeles Region

Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura Counties, together with the western portions of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties form a huge metropolitan area with much of the state’s population. The Southern California Association of Governments, SCAG, is preparing a regional growth strategy or vision, known as the Southern California Compass, for the region. It began with public workshops around the region for participants to consider possible locations for future growth. SCAG will use this information to develop a range of land use growth scenarios, then ask the public to choose a preferred scenario.

Most of the developed land is a gigantic area of contiguous development encompassing the Los Angeles Basin, Orange County and the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. The resulting problems are immense, and a lesson for other rapidly growing metropolitan regions.

In 2001 the Southern California Studies Center at the University of Southern California, in the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy published Sprawl Hits the Wall: Confronting the Realities of Metropolitan Los Angeles. It is essential reading for all those concerned about the future of California’s metropolitan regions. The fringe development of new suburbs is now far inland, in Riverside and San Bernardino and north-east Los Angeles Counties. There is a large, older, regional core that spreads across city and county boundaries and many of the mature cities in the region are struggling economically. The core is fringed by more affluent, slow-growing, coastal and foothill communities, some of which are becoming new job centers. Resolving the myriad of resulting problems requires major re-distribution of public and private investment in the region.

Sacramento Region

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments, SACOG, covers a six county area around the state capital. It decided to include consideration of alternative land use patterns as part of its work on the next regional transportation plan that is due in 2005. The first step in this process was the development of the “base case” showing the land use impacts if business as usual development and projected population increases occur. The base case scenario used a long time frame - showing development up to 2050 plus allocation of additional land for homebuilding from 2050 to 2070. The very extensive sprawl and loss of agricultural lands and open space shown by this base case served as a wake up call for the region.

The next step involved a very large number of public workshops around the jurisdiction. A variety of civic organizations assisted in this process. Much of the focus here was consideration of alternate approaches to neighborhood development, using the integrated planning software. The results fed into a second round of workshops that considers four alternate land use scenarios for each county, while a third round of workshops will address the region. At the end of April 2004 SACOG holds a regional forum to consider different six-county scenarios. The end result will be an alternative, 30 year, land use scenario for use in developing the next Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

San Diego County

While a single county, San Diego is one of the state’s largest metropolitan regions. The County and 18 cities have an Association of Governments, commonly known as SANDAG, that has long been in the forefront of regional thinking and addressing multiple issues beyond transportation. For example, SANDAG has played a major role in multi-species and natural community conservation planning in San Diego County. The County, all the cities, a variety of agencies and organizations from the League of Women Voters to the Endangered Habitats League to the North County Republican Club have endorsed the Smart Growth and growth management strategies.

SANDAG is now working to develop a 30-year regional comprehensive plan. As well as transportation and other infrastructure, this addresses urban form, housing and conservation of healthy ecosystems. As with the San Francisco Region, there is a focus on shifting the location of new development to infill and transit corridors and the nature of development to provide mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. Also there was extensive use of public workshops across the County. The SANDAG board released a draft plan in December 2003 and a draft Environmental Impact Report in March 2004. The goal is to adopt the plan at the end of June 2004.

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Some of California’s Other Regions

Beyond these major metropolitan areas are other regions, each of which has major land use issues, ecological and agricultural values. For a number of these there are regional overviews and approaches of one type or another. Many of these correspond to a system of Bioregions developed in the early 1990's by the state’s Resources Agency as an organizing principle for the multi-agency California Biodiversity Council. Several of these have overlaps with the four major metropolitan areas.

San Joaquin Valley

The southern half of the Central Valley. It stretches from San Joaquin to Kern Counties, and involves all or parts of seven counties. The San Joaquin Valley is the largest agricultural region in the state. It has major issues of rapid growth and urban-suburban sprawl that threaten this agricultural base.

The San Joaquin Valley has major air pollution problems, due to the combination of in-region growth, winds from the Bay Area and the surrounding mountains that trap air masses. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District struggles to address this problem, but has no authority over land use decisions or the Bay Area. In 2003 the Valley was re-classified as a severe non-attainment area for ozone and particulate matter (PM10), which buys more time for achieving air quality improvements.

This region is home to a great many endangered or threatened species and has lost most of its historic wetlands and riparian woodlands. The San Joaquin River, reduced to a narrow channel by levees, has major flood problems.

Sacramento Valley

This northern portion of the Central Valley stretches from Sacramento and Yolo Counties to the Redding portion of Shasta Counties. The southern area, comprising much of the rapidly growing Sacramento region, has major problems of urban-suburban sprawl. Most of the Valley is a productive agriculture area with very high habitat values, including winter-flooded rice fields that provide for Pacific Flyway waterfowl and shorebirds. It has a variety of natural resource issues, problems with both urban-suburban and rural growth, and a growing concern about increased water exports.

The Delta

The Delta is a mosaic of islands at the confluence of the Sacramento and The San Joaquin Rivers. Historically, the area was a vast tule marsh with a network of river channels. In the nineteenth century the rivers and other channels were hemmed in by levees, the marshes drained and converted to agriculture. This resulted in major subsidence, so that now the Delta islands lie well below sea level.

Under state law the Delta is divided into a central Primary Zone and outlying Secondary Zone. A Delta Protection Commission has significant authority and little development can occur in the primary zone. Portions of the secondary zone have significant growth issues.

Federal and state water projects tap into the river water in the south Delta, and obtain a major amount of the water for southern California cities and west The San Joaquin Valley agriculture. This water extraction clashes with needs for the ecological health of both the Delta and the San Francisco Bay, as well as impacting a host of Sacramento Valley land use issues. In the 1990's, a consortium of state and federal agencies formed the California Bay Delta Authority, commonly known as CalFed. They developed the detailed CalFed Plan for management of the area to conserve the Delta and Bay resources, provide water for the south and address watershed management issues. Implementation is complex and remains a contentious issue

Sierra Nevada

California’s longest mountain range provides much of the state’s water supply. It is a major recreational area, with a great wealth of native species and a wide range of habitat types. The main mountain areas are almost entirely National Parks and national forests. The western foothills, which are almost entirely private lands, have major problems of urban-suburban and rural growth as a result of their proximity to The San Joaquin Valley cities and include part of the Sacramento metro area.

In the early 1990's the Sacramento Bee published a landmark series on the wide range of threats facing the Sierra Nevada One outcome was the Congressionally mandated Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) which carried out extensive studies of the public lands areas resources and range wide economic issues, producing the multi-volume SNEP report. Two major non-governmental organizations, the Sierra Business Council and the Sierra Nevada Alliance focus on the long-term well-being of the range and its human communities.

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Additional Articles in our Periodical Linkages

Linkages # 15, Fall 2003

Planning for a Floodplain: Southern California’s Santa Clara River


Examines the development, benefits and shortcomings of the Santa Clara River Enhancement and Management Plan

Providing for the Needs of Nature at the Regional Scale


Column outlining regional scale conservation needs and some current approaches.

Linkages # 11, Spring 2001

Review - the Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl


Reviews this extremely important planning book with an inspiring vision of how to provide for the overall health of metropolitan regions

Linkages # 9, Winter 2000

Review: Shaping the Sierra


Review of book by Tim Duane examining growth issues in the Sierra Foothills

Linkages #7 , Fall 1998

Curbing Sprawl : Need for Vision and a Regional Perspective


Considers the need for a vision for the future and a regional perspective. Examples of regional approaches from various states and from different parts of California

Linkages # 3, Fall 1996

What is the Future of the Sierra Nevada Foothills?


Growth pressures and impacts in the Sierra foothills

Sierra Foothill Biodiversity - from Peril to Conservation


Habitats, changes since beginning of European settlement and conservation strategies

Linkages #2, Spring 1996

The Central Valley Needs a Vision


Central Valley growth projections, impacts and principles for the future

Providing for Nature in the Central Valley


The biological conservation needed in the Central Valley

Key Protected Areas and Conservation Projects in the Central Valley

Linkages # 1, Fall 1995

What Future for the Santa Clara River?


Pressures on the Santa Clara River

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Links to On-line Reports and Additional Useful Web Sites

California Metropatterns. (2000) Myron Orfield Metropolitan Area Research Corporation, Minneapolis, MN. Shows that not only older communities but also 155 suburbs that are growing fast as bedroom communities have inherent fiscal problems. Proposes tax sharing and regional planning.

Metropolitan Growth Planning in California 1900-2000. (2002) Barbour, E Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA.

Friends of the Santa Clara River  Citizens organization focused on conservation of the Santa Clara River in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Urban Ecology  San Francisco organization whose issues include connecting land use and transportation at the regional scale.

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Blueprint for a Sustainable Bay Area (1996) Urban Ecology, Inc San Francisco. Examines key issues relating to sustainable land use in the Bay area, and recommends an overall approach, from the regional big picture to individual urban centers and neighborhoods. Illustrated with excellent photographs.

Confronting Suburban Decline : Strategic Planning for Metropolitan Sprawl (2000). Lucy W and Phillips D. Island Press. A scholarly analysis of the decline of many post World War II suburbs. Examines the causal factors and makes a series of recommendations including a regional approach to development.

Land Mosaics: the Ecology of Landscapes and Regions. (1995) Forman, RTT Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. Conceptual background, evidence and many examples of landscape scale ecology. Three chapters on issues of human interaction with the land.

The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (2001) Calthorpe R and Fulton W. Island Press. An extremely important planning book with an inspiring vision of how to provide for the overall health of metropolitan regions. Reviewed in Linkages # 11 (link to downloading Linkages #11)

Shaping the Sierra (1999) Duane T, University of California
Nature and causes of Sierra Foothill growth

When Cities and Country Collide: Managing Growth in the Metropolitan Fringe (1999) Daniels, T Island Press. Examines the problems of metro fringe development and obstacles to effective growth management. Explores various planning, design and growth management techniques. Provides various model documents.

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