Beyond Sprawl: New
Patterns of Growth to Fit the New
Table of Contents
California is at a unique and unprecedented point in its history-a point at which we face profound questions about our future growth that will determine the state's economic vitality and quality of life for the next generation and beyond.
One of the most fundamental
questions we face is whether California can afford
to support the pattern of urban and suburban
development, often referred to as
There is no question that this pattern of growth has helped fuel California's unparalleled economic and population boom, and that it has enabled millions of Californians to realize the enduring dream of home ownership. But as we approach the 21st century, it is clear that sprawl has created enormous costs that California can no longer afford. Ironically, unchecked sprawl has shifted from an engine of California's growth to a force that now threatens to inhibit growth and degrade the quality of our life.
This report, sponsored by a diverse coalition of organizations, is meant to serve as a call for California to move beyond sprawl and rethink the way we will grow in the future. This is not a new idea, but it is one that has never been more critical or urgent.
Despite dramatic changes in California over the last decade, traditional development patterns have accelerated. Urban job centers have decentralized to the suburbs. New housing tracts have moved even deeper into agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas. Private auto use continues to rise.
This acceleration of sprawl has surfaced enormous social, environmental and economic costs, which until now have been hidden, ignored, or quietly borne by society. The burden of these costs is becoming very clear. Businesses suffer from higher costs, a loss in worker productivity, and underutilized investments in older communities.
California's business climate becomes less attractive than surrounding states. Suburban residents pay a heavy price in taxation and automobile expenses, while residents of older cities and suburbs lose access to jobs, social stability, and political power. Agriculture and ecosystems also suffer.
There is a fundamental dynamic to growth, whether it be the growth of a community or a corporation, that evolves from expansion to maturity. The early stages of growth are often exuberant and unchecked-that has certainly been the case in post-World War II California. But unchecked growth cannot be sustained forever. At some point this initial surge must mature into more managed, strategic growth. This is the point where we now stand in California.
We can no longer afford the luxury of sprawl. Our demographics are shifting in dramatic ways. Our economy is restructuring. Our environment is under increasing stress. We cannot shape California's future successfully unless we move beyond sprawl.
This is not a call for limiting growth, but a call for California to be smarter about how it grows-to invent ways we can create compact and efficient growth patterns that are responsive to the needs of people at all income levels, and also help maintain California's quality of life and economic competitiveness.
It is a tall order-one that calls for us to rise above our occasional isolation as individuals and interest groups, and address these profound challenges as a community. All of us-government agencies, businesses, community organizations and citizens-play a role. Our actions should be guided by the following goals:
Californians are already taking some of these steps. We have attempted in this report to not only point out the obstacles to sustained growth, but also to highlight the positive actions that are occurring to better manage growth. Our fundamental message is that we must build on these early successes and take more comprehensive and decisive steps over the next few years to meet this challenge. To build a strong, vibrant economy and ensure a high quality of life for the 21st century, we must move beyond sprawl in the few remaining years of the 20th century.
California is at the
crossroads of change.
In the face of this change,
California remains shackled to costly patterns of
suburban sprawl. Even as our economy and our
society are being reinvented daily, we continue to
abandon people and investments in older communities
as development leap-frogs out to fringe areas to
accommodate another generation of low-density
living. And we continue to create communities that
rely almost exclusively on automobiles for
transportation. In short, the
We cannot afford another
generation of sprawl. As the Governor's Growth
Management Council stated in a recent report:
At a time when economic growth is slow and social tensions are high, it is easy to dismiss an issue like suburban sprawl as superfluous. Yet it lies at the heart of the very economic, social and environmental issues that we face today. Rapid population growth and economic change are occurring in a state increasingly characterized by a limited supply of developable land, environmental stress at the metropolitan fringe, and older communities in transition. With the onset of economic recovery, the next few years will give rise to land-use decisions of fundamental importance. They will help determine whether our state can succeed in re-establishing the economic and social vitality that have made it such a successful place to live and work for more than 140 years.
Suburban Sprawl and the
Within the last generation, however, this postwar formula for success has become overwhelmed by its own consequences. Since the 1970s, housing has become more expensive, roads have become more congested, the supply of developable land has dwindled, and, because of increasing costs, government agencies have not been able to keep up with the demand for public services.
Since the late 1970s, several efforts have been initiated to address the question of how to manage California's growth, but all have failed-some for lack of consensus, some for lack of engaged constituency, some simply because of bad timing.
The Challenge of the
During the boom years of the 1980s, California added more than 6 million new residents, a population larger than all but a few of the 49 other states. Even during the bust years of the early 1990s, the state's population grew at a rate of almost a half-million people per year-in effect, adding another Oakland or Fresno every year-even as we have suffered a net loss in the number of jobs.
This continuing surge in population puts pressure on both existing communities and on the remaining supply of undeveloped land, making it extremely difficult for traditional suburban patterns to accommodate more people.
Underneath the racial diversity
lies another important change in the state's
population patterns that will have a profound
effect on California's attitudes toward growth over
the next generation.
The birth rate is also an
increasing source of population growth. During the
Traditional foundations of the state's economy, such as aerospace and defense, have been drastically reduced and will probably never return, at least not in their previous form. Others-such as entertainment, technology, the garment industry and agriculture-remain just as important as ever. But they too have undergone tremendous change, becoming leaner and more efficient in response to global competition. And small businesses remain the largest source of new job creation. In the near future, the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement will begin to be felt.
These economic changes are also
putting pressure on the state's land-use patterns.
The loss of manufacturing jobs is emptying out the
state's long-established industrial areas, usually
located in older communities. Downsizing and
technological change in other industries is also
rendering older buildings obsolete and creating a
demand for new buildings-often in new suburbs-that
are both inexpensive and flexible. The closure of
many military bases is bringing a huge amount of
land to the real estate market that will either
extend sprawl or encourage new
This large-scale urbanization means that California's people and businesses compete intensely with each other for space to live and work. The edges of metropolitan areas continue to grow to accommodate expansion of population and economic activity, while some neglected inner-city areas are left behind. These patterns increase the stress of daily life while, at the same time, put more pressure on land and environmental resources at the metropolitan fringe.
All of these factors-a growing population, a changing economy, and increased urbanization-have been present in California for many years. But they have accelerated in the 1990s, while traditional suburban development patterns have continued. In a state with such powerful growth dynamics, the results are astonishing. The following trends are typical of the effects of sprawl over the last 10 to 20 years:
Even though the consequences of sprawl have been understood for at least two decades, attempts to combat it have been fragmented and ineffective. The engine of sprawl is fueled by a mix of individual choices, market forces, and government policies, most of which have only become more entrenched over time. These forces include:
The result of all these factors is a severe regional imbalance. Housing, jobs, shopping, and other activities are scattered across a huge area and long auto trips are often required to connect them. Such a development pattern imposes a considerable cost on all who use it, though the costs are often hidden and those who pay them are not always aware of it.
The cost and consequences of
sprawl have been documented among academics and
planning experts for more than two decades. In the
early 1970s, planning consultants Lawrence
Livingston and John Blayney produced a landmark
study showing that in some cases, a California
community would be better off financially if it
used a combination of zoning and land acquisition
instead of permitting development of low-density
subdivisions. A few years later, the U.S. Council
on Environmental Quality produced its landmark
report, The Cost of Sprawl-the first comprehensive
analysis of sprawl's true expense to society. As
fiscal and cost-benefit analysis techniques have
become more refined, the true cost of sprawl has
become much more apparent.
Residents of New Suburbs
Residents of Central Cities
and Older Suburbs
In the postwar era, the continuous cycle of suburban sprawl-counter-productive as it was in many ways-actually helped to fuel California's prosperity, as consumption of new houses and new cars became one of the bases of our prosperity. It is clear, however, that the new California cannot sustain old patterns of urban development, if the state is to prosper in the future.
The sponsors of this report-Bank of America, the California Resources Agency, Greenbelt Alliance, and the Low-Income Housing Fund-firmly believe that California cannot succeed unless the state moves beyond sprawl. Strong policy direction from our political leaders on both the state and local level is essential. But government policies alone will not help California move forward. Our businesses, our community groups, and our citizens must also take the initiative. We must understand how sprawl affects each of us individually, how it impedes the state's progress, and how it could make a prosperous future more difficult to achieve.
Population growth will require some degree of development on the suburban fringe. The question is whether we will be able to use existing urban and suburban land more efficiently in order to minimize sprawl and protect valuable open spaces. The answers will lie in our ability to attract housing and businesses to older urban and suburban areas and to channel development on the fringe to achieve the desired protection and economic benefits.
California businesses cannot compete globally when they are burdened with the costs of sprawl. An attractive business climate cannot be sustained if the quality of life continues to decline and the cost of financing real estate development escalates. People in central cities and older suburbs cannot become part of the broader economy if sprawl continues to encourage disinvestment, and the state can neither afford to ignore nor fully subsidize these neglected areas.
California must find a new development model. We must create more compact and efficient development patterns that accommodate growth, yet help maintain California's environmental balance and its economic competitiveness. And we must encourage everyone in California to propose and create solutions to sprawl.
A do-nothing approach, in effect, constitutes a policy decision in favor of the status quo. This, in fact, has been the de facto direction for the last generation. While the state and the regions have created a leadership void in this area, many local governments have stepped in with their own policies, which often have served to promote sprawl rather than prevent it. Recent research has shown that individual local growth-control policies do not stop development, but merely deflect it- often to another area further out on the metropolitan fringe, where the cost of development is even greater. The question is not whether to address sprawl. The question is how to address it.
In the early 1990's, the California Legislature convened a consensus project on growth management, and in 1991 Governor Wilson formed a cabinet-level council charged with developing a plan on how the state should address the challenge. A great deal of good work was done and agreement was reached in some areas. These processes did not result in legislative action, but a good foundation of understanding has been established.
As was stated at the outset,
this report is not meant to be a manual or a
To succeed, we will have to set aside individual interests, build on the foundation that has been laid, and work for the good of the whole. We need to address sprawl through community action, public policy, private business practices, and individual behavior. It is our intent that the ideas and examples that follow will be used as a basis for further refinement and concerted action.
First, more certainty is needed
in delineating where new development should and
should not occur. Sprawl occurs partly because
current policy constrains the real estate market by
Using this approach means utilizing land at the suburban fringe more efficiently and encouraging the reuse of land and other development opportunities in already developed areas. It does not mean stopping growth at the fringe, but doing it at density levels that will not promote further sprawl. To succeed, this approach needs more effective public policies encouraging such compact growth and removing barriers to it.
However, the other side of certainty for developers requires commitments to conserve ecologically important habitats and other open space. Accelerating statewide planning efforts such as Natural Communities Conservation Planning (NCCP), which involves voluntary action at the local level and requires consensus among development, environmental, community and local government interests, will enhance our ability to provide greater environmental and economic certainty regarding new development. With its emphasis on biological assessment, ecosystem protection and compatible economic development, NCCP can provide much greater certainty to both those who want to develop their property and those who want to protect the natural environment. Broader use of mitigation banks can facilitate market-based compensation to landowners who choose to help protect ecologically valuable land.
Conservation of other habitat and open space, such as prime agricultural land, will also require us to find creative approaches like the NCCP process. The newly established California Environmental Resources Evaluation System (CERES) will help this process by expanding access to data about important resources in the state.
Regardless of the methods used, much of the leadership for providing greater certainty for conservation and development must come from the state, regional agencies, and local governments working together. But private businesses also have a critical role. Especially in difficult economic times, real estate developers and their lenders know that certainty of approval and availability of infrastructure, rather than speculative leapfrogging, will reduce costs and reduce processing time. Thus, new real estate developments can be brought to market more quickly and cheaply within areas where effective consensus plans for conservation and development have been created.
Second, we should make more efficient use of land that has already been developed. Older urban and suburban neighborhoods should be reinforced as good places to live and do business, and the process should take place without displacing low-income residents. Sprawl occurs partly because of the perception that older neighborhoods are dangerous, expensive, obsolete, unpleasant, or otherwise unacceptable to those who have the option of leaving. The result is a tragic neglect of both people and capital investments.
Older neighborhoods must be maintained and improved so they are again desirable places to live and work. Old Town Pasadena, the South of Market area in San Francisco, and the train depot reconstruction in Sacramento are all prime examples of successful restoration projects. Better school systems, job training and access to capital for small businesses are prerequisites. These efforts require a combination of government policy initiatives, active business investment, and special efforts by individuals and community groups.
Attracting jobs is absolutely critical. State and local governments should adopt land-use and transportation policies that reinforce investments in older neighborhoods. Incentives must be developed for job- creating businesses, homebuyers, and others willing to invest in older neighborhoods. For example, Superfund laws can be made more sensible so existing industrial sites can be recycled into new uses. Investors can make more aggressive use of low income housing tax credits. Wider use can be made of Enterprise Zones. And tax credits or other incentives can be established for lending and equity investments that support small businesses and job growth. Development on the fringe imposes infrastructure, pollution and social costs well in excess of assessed development fees. If we rationalize development and control the costs of sprawl, it will free up capital that can be reinvested into existing cities and suburbs.
Older communities themselves need to make their neighborhoods attractive to job creating and housing investments. Individuals and community groups in those areas should redouble their efforts to improve the quality of urban life in small ways, for example, by forming community- based crime prevention groups and supporting local community development efforts that will enhance their neighborhoods.
Home ownership at all income levels needs to be encouraged. In general, those who own homes have the greatest interest in maintaining neighborhood vitality. Public policy should support methods of keeping low-income people from displacement through development of affordable housing (both home ownership and rental) and provision of supportive services. Also if developers are to provide quality housing in existing neighborhoods, they need protection from frivolous environmental and product liability suits.
The closing of military bases in California offers interesting potential for development. Bases have substantial potential as alternatives to building houses and job centers on the suburban fringe. While there are problems associated with redeveloping many bases, they also have excellent potential for showcasing how to resolve difficult urban rebuilding strategies.
Third, a legal and procedural framework should be established to create the desired certainty and send the right economic signals to investors. Four elements are needed.
(a) Where development is allowed, state and local permitting should be streamlined. This is critical to encouraging development in urban and older suburban areas. It may require changes to legislation that relates to permitting.
(b) Development at the metropolitan fringe should be required to pay the full marginal cost of development. Housing and business space on the metropolitan fringe is often inexpensive because those developments pay for local infrastructure, but do not pay the full cost of constructing roads, developing water supplies, mitigating environmental problems, and creating regional imbalances. Imposing such costs on those developments would discourage sprawl. For example, the city of Lancaster adopted an innovative program that requires new development to pay capital and operating costs of infrastructure. Development further out pays its full cost, while development that is closer to the city's center pays much less, since it is tied in to existing city services.
Again, this is a task that requires the active participation of both government and business. For example, many government agencies, such as water suppliers, subsidize development on the metropolitan fringe by spreading the cost of their infrastructure across all users, new and old. Changing such policies would discourage sprawl.
Failing to levy the full marginal cost gives leapfrog development an unfair competitive advantage over projects in existing urban areas, where transactions are made more difficult and expensive by toxic waste and other environmental liability issues. Expanding environmental audits to include wetlands, endangered species, and other issues-a practice that is already beginning-would also discourage sprawl by including the full assessment of environmental cost in private real estate transactions.
(c) California's local governments should encourage more efficient and coordinated local land-use policies. Sprawl has been encouraged by tax revenue competition among local governments for some land uses, such as retail centers, and by slow-growth policies that discourage other land uses, such as housing.
Development patterns that are
now truly regional are being created almost
completely by an accumulation of local decisions.
But some local governments are beginning to show
that it is possible to work together toward
consistent land-use policies when given the
incentive to do so. In planning for the reuse of
closed military bases, for example, local
governments are forming
The vast majority of Californians choose to locate in large metropolitan areas. But most of these people live in small, politically independent suburban jurisdictions. These local governments must work together toward a consistent set of land-use policies-such as discouraging development on the metropolitan fringe and reinforcing investments in transit systems-that will enhance economic opportunity and quality of life across the entire metropolitan area. Joint powers authorities, such as those created for military base reuse, should be viewed as one model for cooperative planning, and others are needed.
(d) Technological change should be used to combat sprawl rather than encourage it. In the past, technological advancements (such as automobiles and government-sponsored freeways) have supported sprawl, requiring expensive after-the-fact government action of questionable value (such as ridesharing requirements). Today we stand at the threshold of a new technological era that offers the opportunity to have more work done at home and in local communities. We must take advantage of the opportunities presented by the information superhighway to improve our land-use patterns rather than further destroy them.
For example, the information superhighway could end up encouraging a further decentralization of jobs to the metropolitan fringe. Freed of a daily commute to a large employment center, some individuals and small businesses will seek to locate in distant suburbs and travel back to older urban centers to do business as needed. This trend could put more pressure on land at the fringe.
However, the telecommunications revolution can also hold the potential for reviving economically troubled areas. Because of its locational flexibility, telecommunications can provide new job prospects for older urban neighborhoods and for rural towns. Both government policy and private business practice should encourage the use of telecommunications to reinforce existing communities rather than further dissipate them.
Fourth, we should forge a constituency to build sustainable communities. Past efforts to reduce sprawl have been hampered because little constituency exists beyond groups of government reformers, some local government leaders, community groups, and conservationists. But, as this report suggests, many other players in California's future will also find themselves increasingly stifled by sprawl. Political alliances must be forged between environmentalists, inner-city community advocates, business leaders, government experts, farmers, and suburbanites to improve the quality of life in all our existing communities and protect our resources.
This will not be an easy task.
Most of these groups are focused on their specific
agendas and often harbor animosity toward each
other even though alliances make long-term
We must act now. The decisions we make in the next few years will determine California's future course-and its chances for success. To build a strong economy and retain a good quality of life for the 21st Century, we must move beyond sprawl to a new vision of community in the few remaining years of the 20th Century.
The sponsors are grateful for the assistance provided by Steven Moss and his associates at the consulting firm of M. Cubed for developing much of the basic research behind this paper. We are also indebted to William Fulton for conceptualizing and drafting the paper. His clarity of vision helped consolidate our thinking into a comprehensive whole. If you would like to comment on the paper, or obtain additional copies, please contact any of the following sponsors:
Bank of America
California Resources Agency
The Low Income Housing Fund
This report was reproduced with promission of Bank America