Sprawling America

by Carolyn Chase


ike a middle-age waistline spilling over its belt, Los Angeles and San Diego stand out as examples of the "worst sprawl has to offer," according to a report released last week by the Sierra Club.

We don't like comparisons to our big city to the north, but San Diego has already known its share of L.A.-style sprawl. San Diego's surrounding areas have been on a steady growth spurt for several decades. Between 1980 and 1990, the region welcomed about 640,000 new residents and another 213,000 between 1990 and 1996 -- roughly a 50% increase, overall. According to present growth trends, the next twenty years could see one million more people added to the population of San Diego.

Along with the population explosion, San Diego has one of the fastest growing traffic problems in the country. Highways throughout the region have never been more jammed. The number of hours San Diego residents wasted in traffic jumped by 117% between 1982 and 1994: one of the highest increases in the country.

The report is part of Sierra Club's national effort to educate and engage the public in a debate on the high costs of suburban sprawl, including loss of open space and prime farmland; wasted tax revenue; isolated, auto-dependent communities; and increased air and water pollution.

For decades, local, state and federal governments have directly and indirectly encouraged people to move farther and farther out. Now, the costs of sprawling, runaway growth are clear and increasing. We are losing irreplaceable farm land, spending too much of our lives in traffic, and creating air pollution that's undoing the gains we've made since we passed the federal Clean Air Act 25 years ago. All across our country, cities and towns large and small are rethinking the costs and benefits of poorly planned, poorly managed growth.

The report, entitled "The Dark Side of the American
Dream: The Costs and Consequences of Suburban Sprawl," shows how poorly planned suburban sprawl is both environmentally destructive and fiscally unsustainable.

Why the "Dark Side"?

In California and across America, sprawl is destroying open space, paving over vital watersheds and wetlands, creating air pollution by increasing traffic miles and road congestion, and devastating natural habitat for fish and wildlife. In addition, sprawl is
forcing communities to come up with the money -- often in the form of increased taxes -- to pay for building big-ticket infrastructure communities require, including new schools, roads, waterworks, and fire and police departments.

What are the mechanisms of sprawl? Sprawl is growth in horizontal motion. The paradigm is: roads + growth = sprawl.

The "enemy" as they say, is us. Sprawl is the natural evolution of the lifestyle known as the American Dream. Sprawl is a yard, two cars, and places to park them, spreading out everywhere over everything with only highways to connect them. Our declining quality of life comes from too much growth of this pattern. But for most, it also defines our quality of life.

This lifestyle choice pushes sprawl out into areas where there is room for more roads and more cars....but this is starting
to back up on us too. Congestion is the number one consequence of sprawl. People who cannot afford housing in San Diego are pushed into Temecula and Riverside and onto I-15 to get to jobs in San Diego.

Suburban sprawl is a particular threat to San Diego, given its economic stake in remaining a popular tourist destination, in part based on our unique natural environment. San Diego's habitat is diverse and exotic, rising from the seashore to mesas and canyons and, in a very short distance, to towering mountains. This makes San Diego a biological "hot-spot" - among the top 10 regions on earth in its biodiversity, with more species per unit area than almost anywhere else in the world. Man-made sprawl is the primary reason San Diego County shares with the "big island" of Hawaii the dubious distinction of having the largest number of endangered species nationwide.

San Diego's sprawl is destroying habitat at an alarming rate. Between 1982 and 1992, San Diego County saw 70,000 acres of land developed, each acre of which encroached on precious habitat. Because of the seriousness of the loss of undisturbed open space, a new model habitat conservation plan known as the Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) is now in place to preserve 172,000 acres of habitat in the next 30 years.

Even while this plan is touted as an answer to San Diego's sprawl vs. conservation problems, sprawl development proposals show no sign of tapering off. One bad highway proposal, the 125 tollway, would build an 11-mile, 10-lane tollway slashing through pristine natural areas to a future subdivision -- the Otay Ranch planned for 150,000 new residents. Fourteen environmental groups and 55 businesses have opposed the proposed tollway as an expensive boondoggle that will destroy critical remaining natural areas and won't promote smart growth efforts in the region.

The good news is that solutions do exist - population growth and ungoverned sprawl are not synonymous. California Futures Network (CFN) is a statewide coalition of organizations representing urban, environmental, housing, social justice, local and tribal governments, labor, business and agricultural interests that was established to promote economically, socially and environmentally sustainable land use in California.

Sierra Club and other CFN affiliates believe this statewide strategy should:
1) steer public and private investments toward existing developed areas;
2) Provide for increased social justice, economic and housing opportunities;
3) Conserve the state's valuable agricultural and natural lands.


In the mean time, San Diegans have taken matters into their own hands in the form of local land use measures on this November's ballot. Proposition B, "The Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative," would establish that growth should not go into sensitive backcountry areas. Propositions K and M are examples of a responsible planning approach to growth. These projects take the next step in showing how growth should be accommodated within existing urban infrastructure.

The decision we make in November will have a critical impact on San Diego's future - whether we will maintain our uniqueness, or continue our sprawling ways to Los Angelization.