Quite a vision or
Growing Up?

by Carolyn Chase


he main politically incorrect thing you're not supposed to say in San Diego political circles, along with the word growth, is the word no. But there it was, before an Earth Day breakfast crowd of more than 130 assembled in the Cruise Ship Terminal downtown, listening to remarks on "Urban Growth/Open Space: San Diego's Future in the Balance."
And it wasn't even an environmentalist bringing it up.

Chris Chambers, Continental Homes, and Building Industry Association past president and panel-sponsor stated: "The issue is not a no growth issue. You can't say no to growth. The oldest woman in the world died recently and she left 156 people behind her. That's a fact today and that will be a fact tomorrow. . . .the only way to have no growth is to have no births. The Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative and Jerry Harmon's Building Moratorium are only short term ideas....population is not going away and it has to go somewhere...the only way talk no growth is to talk no births."

Quite a vision. I couldn't help thinking: yes! let's talk about stopping population growth. But that's decidedly different from talking "no births." What we need to be doing is distinguishing the developers from the "growers." Development can be the ongoing evolution of something. Growth means the physical increase of something. It is this physical increase that consumes and depletes the environment and threatens our quality of life.

The truth is, beyond some point growth cannot be sustained. Unmanaged growth is the ideology of the cancer cell and we must confront how to deal with both regional and global demographic realities.

Globally, population sustainability and stabilization is an essential step in arresting the destruction of natural resources and ensuring that the needs of people can be met humanely. Thirty-three countries, encompassing 14% of global population, now have stable populations, including Japan and most of those in Europe.

John D. Rockefeller III reported from the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future in 1972: "We have looked for and have not found any convincing economic argument for continued population growth. The health of our country does not depend on it, nor does the vitality of business nor the welfare of the average person." On the contrary, the Commission found that: "The stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation's ability to solve its problems."

Locally, the growthmongers grease the wheels of politics as required. But this push also seeks to offload environmental and community costs as much as possible. New development may not even pay its own way. Poorer areas decline for lack of reinvestment and infrastructure funding. Combine that with Byzantine taxing and subsidies and we are always playing catch-up to deal with growth.

But many average citizens stuck in traffic are waking up to the fact that they _can_ say no to growth. This is how urban sprawl really happens. To protect our low-density, car-dependent designs, people form "NIMBY" alliances to push the growth elsewhere. But where? The 20+ community planning groups chartered in the unincorporated areas of the county recently recommended that the unincorporated population grow 214,000 fewer residents than the county's current General Plan allows and 115,000 fewer people than the San Diego Association of Governments projects in its forecasts. San Diego Planning Commission Chair Mark Steele proclaimed: "if we don't build in the Future Urbanizing Area it will cause more traffic on I-15 not less."

Steele hopefully put forth the idea that "surely there is no one here in favor of urban sprawl." But surely there was. There were many in fact. People like and have huge investments in their low-density, car addicted lifestyles. But only one had the temerity to stand up and address it publicly. Fred Schnaubelt rose to the occasion: "I'm in favor of urban sprawl because it's about freedom. All cities are designed to create urban sprawl.....height limits, population limits, zoning restrictions...these all create urban sprawl. I live in Rancho Bernardo and that is textbook urban sprawl and I love it."

At least someone was willing to tell the truth about it, because he is exactly correct that our current approach to development has been to create urban sprawl. It's the balloon approach: you push in one place and it pops out somewhere else. This dynamic is what has pushed the county to the lead the nation in the number of threatened and endangered species. People push out and nature and farmlands lose. Habitat is destroyed, pollution outputs and demands on the watershed increase.

Quite a few folks were saying another politically-incorrect word: "densification." Steele stated: "Densify in the city and protect the outlying areas." Chambers amazingly noted: "Were it not for Rancho Bernardo, we would not have a place to densify."

Joe Ragusa, Executive Director of the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance provided some balance: "Look who you're competing with and on what basis. If you want hi-tech jobs, certain resources are necessary. As you think about land use, you need to think about what housing and services this kind of worker is looking for. Engineers check out the quality of life statistics for an area and these include many of the crunchy granola stuff that people want: walkable communities, acceptable commuting conditions, good schools, easy access to nature/outdoor activities, job clusters, density is okay. San Diego is competing with Portland, Seattle, Austin Texas and Denver for people capital and these other cities think that way about their land use and planning."

Steele concurred on the common elements for absorbing growth and retaining quality of life without urban sprawl: "Compact communities provide for more sustainable developments by reducing the needs for trips, using less land and supporting a high quality of life. But council members understandably protect their districts from growth without the infrastructure to support it. $300 million has been identified in mid-city alone, the issue is how to pay for it."

How can we finance the infrastructure improvements needed to service more compact and liveable communities and at the same time keep density away from areas that don't want it? There actually was an answer to this: put together an honest, comprehensive and real package - along with the bill - so that voters can see what they're getting and paying for.