Civic Salad

by Carolyn Chase


t an all-day symposium hosted by the Council for Design Professionals, a hundred attendees were asked the granddaddy of all municipal identity questions, "What does San Diego want to be when it grows up?"

With the clever title "Building Community," San Diego insiders and outsiders shared insights and anecdotes on past efforts and possible approaches to achieve "a shared vision of the future for the San Diego region."

The symposia materials contained lofty inspirational quotes. "By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities." (Socrates) "A city must be so constructed that it makes its citizens at once secure and happy. To realize the latter aim, city building must be not just a technical question but an aesthetic one in the highest sense." (Camille Sitte)

There were moments of much needed humor. "Remember there are two kinds of people: those who hate density and those who hate urban sprawl. We have in San Diego a mix that makes for interesting letters to the editor," quipped Sandy Goodkin.

Several of the presentations articulated views about "Smart Growth" - what it is, what it isn't and what it could mean to the success of one city and region over another.

"Why Smart Growth Matters" was part of the message of Harriet Tregoning, Director of Urban and Economic Development in the Environmental Protection Agency, who was stumping for "Better America Bonds." "Across America, communities are searching for ways to keep growing while preserving a high quality of life. Among their concerns are revitalizing older neighborhoods, curbing water pollution, and protecting farmland and green spaces."

These tax credit bonds would authorize $9.5 billion to preserve open spaces, protect water quality and clean up brownfield sites. Communities would pay zero interest and the principal is due in 15 years. Bond holders would receive tax credits from the federal government equal to the amount of interest they would have received from the communities.

According to this so-called Livability Agenda, "Local communities can work together in partnerships with land trust groups, environmentalists, business leaders and others to propose creative and innovative solutions to their community's development challenges ... This is not a big government program. The federal government will not purchase one square inch of land. Not will it micromange local zoning and land use decisions. Our states and communities will build this legacy themselves. All decisions will be made at the state or local level."

William Hudnut, a former congressman and four-term mayor of Indianapolis, addressed the challenges for cities, "National and regional economies cannot thrive and compete without successful cities ... cities are now seen as centers of progress rather than just centers for pathology. Successful regions will have communities that learn to grow smart. Smart growth will be part and parcel of the successful community of the future.

"There is a lot of confusion. How are we going to grow? Where are we going to grow? Conservatives see it as statist planning - an effort to control land use. Liberals see it sometimes just as a meaningless word to allow people to keep on sprawling. The truth always lies somewhere in the middle. "

In his book "Cities on the Rebound, a Vision for Urban America," Hudnut articulated his goals for a smart-growth program:

  • maintenance of a high quality of life and sense of community;
  • creation of user-friendly neighborhoods and urban entertainment districts;
  • decreasing dependence on the automobile, with a commitment to easy movement and security;
  • encouragement of infill construction, mixed-use development, and growth where infrastructure is already in place;
  • preservation of historic buildings;
  • promotion of adaptive use;
  • renewal of brownfields and abandoned lands;
  • protection of the environment and natural resources; and
  • provision of adequate services with identification of clear boundaries for future urban growth.

Hudnut asked, "So, where do you want to be in 20 years? How should we grow in order to assure a better quality of life for our children and grandchildren? Can we do it better? Can we build a more sustainable community? Wayne Gretzky, arguably the best hockey player ever, once said: 'Other players skate to where the puck is, I skate to where it's going to be.' He had the ability to anticipate. Where will we be when 1.2 million more are here? ... Will we continue business as usual?... one shopping center, one business development at a time? That is not planning. It's just a sequence of permits that consumes land and does not add up to a city. ... Sprawl contributes to urban apartheid; the reality of unplanned growth brings about a type of economic triage where a finite amount of money is given to new areas while old areas are left to die. This is a sign of decay. We need a new ethic of land use and development that optimizes value and creates qualitatively better communities rather than quantitatively bigger communities."

Other than "growing smart," the other key principle articulated for successful cities is citizen participation. Hudnut continuted, "Citizen participation will characterize the successful city of the future. Today's good citizens should be a part of the networks that build the public good to be more than a empty phrase. It's no longer possible, if it ever was, to administrate a city from the top down. Cities work with the meaningful involvement of the citizens who help to shape a healthy civic life.

"What do good citizens do? Scan the public scene for signs of danger - then not only vote, but become informed; join a political group; petition or make some civic noise. Leaders make civic noise and create positive change. .. We are called to build community. Prosperity is a result of that, not the cause... The torch has now been passed to the business leaders and shifted from civil and political rights to economic rights. People are growing to recognize we're all in this together...not homogenized into one great big whole - not the melting pot metaphor that we've had in the past, but now the salad bowl ... lots of different things are in the salad ... held together by some dressing, but each piece retains its own identity.

"America is at a crossroads. Buckminster Fuller called it a choice between utopia or oblivion. We will either take full advantage of all the opportunities at our disposal to create smart growth - the opposite of bad sprawl - or failing to do so, will continue to collectively fuel the impoverishment of our quality of life."