San Francisco Chronicle architecture columnist John King writes today of an ambitious state planning project known as Vision California. The project is intended to provide a holistic, statewide model of growth scenarios, with an emphasis on how high speed rail will change the state's growth and land use patterns. It is co-funded by the California High Speed Rail Authority. As King explains:
The official action is modest, a $2.5 million contract to devise a set of detailed growth scenarios for California, from classic suburban sprawl to compact development focused on older cities. The goal is to produce a single "preferred scenario" - one that conceivably could be used to prod local governments to accept or reject new construction.
This sort of top-down planning would alter politics in California, where cities and counties for decades have deflected any initiatives that might crimp their autonomy. The difference now: legislative efforts to reduce the state's carbon emission levels, and voter support of a high-speed rail system that could put now-distant portions of the Central Valley within commuting distance of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Proponents say there's no way to make wise long-term decisions without data to gauge the impact of different patterns of growth when it comes to matters such as energy or water use.
This is a long-overdue and much-needed effort. High speed rail in particular is going to reshape California's urban geography, and will produce significant shifts in population movement and growth sites. It makes perfect sense to evaluate this on a statewide basis - how would high speed trains produce growth in Fresno? What kind of growth might happen? And how would that affect land use in the older coastal metropolitan areas? How would that impact water and energy usage?
It is very good to hear that this effort is being undertake and that the CHSRA is playing a role. Given California's numerous and converging crises, from water to environment to economy to energy usage, we need to start considering statewide planning to solve those crises without one region's solutions undermining those of another region.
As King explains, this isn't the first time such an effort has been tried. Governor Jerry Brown initiated such a study in the late 1970s, around the time he promoted a high speed train for California:
For instance: If townhouses and bungalows are built instead of large single-family homes, how much agricultural land will be saved? If new housing is placed near existing jobs and shopping, rather than in distant subdivisions, what will be the effect on a household's transportation expenses?
"By showing people the results of different futures, you create a different political climate," Peter Calthorpe said. A founder of the influential Congress for the New Urbanism, Calthorpe was working for the Office of Planning and Research in 1978 when then-Gov. Jerry Brown released "Urban Strategies for California," the last serious statewide planning push...
Despite Calthorpe's optimism that things will be different this time, there's another scenario: Things stay pretty much the same.
After all, the sense of looming crisis is nothing new; "Urban Strategies" decried how sprawl chews up "air, water and other natural resources," but the proposals never translated into a formal plan.
It's worth noting that Governor Brown's late '70s efforts didn't just die. They were killed. As I've argued before, the 1978 tax revolt was driven in part by a desire to preserve 20th century suburban sprawl from a perceived attack by Governor Brown. Although Brown recognized the need for a denser California, he ran into a massive amount of opposition from the beneficiaries of the 1950s and 1960s model of land use, opposition that in 1978 wrote itself into the state constitution. Ever since, what I have described as a homeowner aristocracy - a specific group of people who were able to buy homes in the last few decades of the 20th century and who seek to preserve their property values and obsolete concepts of the urban landscape at the expense of everyone else - have fought every effort to produce a smarter, more sustainable strategy for economic growth and land use. Their successful determination to preserve the late 20th century model has left California economically weak, dependent on overuse of water, and vulnerable to soaring oil prices. Their refusal to embrace new solutions, which won't actually cause them much if any personal or economic harm, is a major impediment to proper planning for California's future.
Vision California is not just a useful exercise to help build a more prosperous and sustainable 21st century state. It's a way to ensure that high speed rail does not get used to promote sprawl. Many anti-HSR conspiracy theorists claim, against the evidence, that the CHSRA is nothing more than a vehicle for developers to pave over the Central Valley. They should then be the biggest champions of the Vision California project:
The project has three phases and will continue for about 18 months.
The first phase includes the formation of a working group to set parameters and decide how far into the future the projections should go. Data would be compiled and measurement standards defined.
Phase two would develop a base-case scenario that extends past trends forward - and alternative scenarios that give greater emphasis to mass transit and higher-density development patterns. The scenarios would be tested on "targeted groups of key stakeholders."
The final phase would follow the release of the alternative scenarios with a "preferred vision" - coupled with an outreach campaign to show how the chosen path "can most effectively impact the development of state, regional, and local policies aimed at meeting state climate change and other key goals."
In other words, limiting sprawl and promoting urban density, transit-oriented development, and mass transit connectivity are explicit goals of this planning process, something CHSRA is signaling it is willing to abide by once it is in place.
This is a welcome development, and I wish the Vision California project well. Let's hope it is matched with further statewide legislation in the vein of AB 32 and SB 375 to complement local efforts to change the longstanding local government preference for sprawl. HSR is a major tool in the effort to limit sprawl, but as we've always said, that has to be matched with regulatory changes in land use policy. Vision California is a necessary step in that direction.