Solving sprawl

by Carolyn Chase


ast week, Americans who turned on their televisions and radios and
opened their newspapers learned about the Sierra Club's newest report, "Solving Sprawl." Whether they tuned into CBS This Morning, CNN's Morning Edition, CNN Headline News, ABC Radio News, CBS Radio News or USA Today, Americans heard that sprawl is not inevitable. Coverage of the report - and the issues contained in it - was the lead story of the day on CNN's Web site.

"The costs and consequences of poorly planned development are becoming clear and common," said Carl Pope, the Club's executive director. "The good news is that we are not doomed to a future oftraffic congestion, air pollution, overcrowded schools, abandoned city centers and lost open space and farm land. This report proves that we can manage suburban sprawl by adopting and implementingsmart-growth solutions."

The best states are using innovative tools like regional planning councils, urban-growth boundaries, investment in public transit and community development programs to help keep a rein on poorly planned growth. While some "smart growth" efforts in San Diego have stumbled with a lack of consensus on what we are in favor of, couldn't we all agree that one thing we are against is poorly planned growth? Because the costs and consequences of poorly planned development have become clear and common, Americans - and San Diegans - are clamoring for better, smarter ways to grow.

America does not have to be known mainly as a nation of parking lots, subdivisions and strip malls. Right now, communities and states across the nation are working hard to control sprawl and manage growth so that it enhances and does not undercut our quality of life.

Regions that want to begin slowing sprawl have successful examples to follow. For example:

  • In Maryland, the state has earmarked $140 million for open-space protection and has plans to save 58,000 acres of crucial land along the state's eastern shore.
  • In Vermont, housing advocates have joined with environmentalists to preserve farm land and provide affordable housing.
  • Rhode Island has made a serious effort to break the stranglehold of the automobile by investing in transportation alternatives.
  • In Oregon, urban-growth limits and intelligent planning haveprotected open space while allowing cities like Portland to thrive.

Our state's population is projected to increase by an additional 15 million by the year 2020. Given this projected growth, the need for sprawl solutions is huge, but the commitment is lacking and the tools are inadequate, poorly funded and poorly enforced. The bitter irony in California is that we have put many sprawl solutions on the books, but in most cases, the solutions are being ignored.

Having sprawled for the past several decades, particularly in southern California, California has failed to reinvest in urban core areas. In the greater Los Angeles area, the largest example, far more public resources flow to communities on the periphery than to the urban/suburban core. Cities have inadequate urban parks, affordable housing, and public transit. Land that could be redeveloped stands empty or covered with unused buildings or "brownfields," contaminated with toxics.

California has the equivalent of a housing trust fund to encourage affordable housing. The need is approximately 800,000 units a year; the actual development of affordable housing is less than ten percent of that number.

Until California decides to reinvest in and make our cities and older suburbs more livable, sprawl on the outskirts will be fueled by those wanting to escape.

The regional planning that does exist in California is primarily transportation planning. But this has proven to be ineffective: urban highways are congested, there are insufficient and uncompetitive public transportation systems, HOV lanes are sporadic and unconnected to one another.

Nationwide, eleven states have passed comprehensive, statewide growth-management acts. But twenty-one states have spent more than half of their federal transportation dollars on new road construction instead of investing in existing roads and developing transportation alternatives. Building new road capacity will not solve our traffic problems -- just as buying bigger pants will not help you lose weight.

While California has many laws on the books that provide tools for preventing poor development, they are difficult to enforce and are frequently ignored by local decision-makers. "Stopping sprawl requires deeds, not just words," said Bill Craven, Sierra Club State Director.

California faces a greater population growth than just about any other state, making the pressures to sprawl enormous. "Addressing these stresses head-on requires thoughtful planning and visionary leadership," said Craven.

An important deed emerged last week when the San Diego Regional Association of Governments (SANDAG) recommended removal of several urban-sprawl road projects from the Regional Transportation Plan. Michael Hix senior transportation planner and project manager for the highway element of the RTP noted, "With all the necessary improvements that are needed in the existing areas - how are we going to fund widening highways into rural areas and why would we want to do that anyway? Shouldn't we be consistent? Does widening highways into east county make sense? Is that smart growth? We feel we should be focusing our efforts on the high-demand urban areas where congestion is the worst and affects the most people. "

SANDAG is to be commended for starting to connect the dots and focus limited taxpayer dollars. That's smart growth. SANDAG is also holding sub-regional workshops around the county the first two weeks of November which are designed to identify additional solutions and commitments necessary to implement smart growth in the San Diego region.

Another opportunity to support smart growth will be found on the March 7, 2000 California primary ballot. A recent report by the California Environmental Dialogue, with corporate, conservation, and foundation members, estimates a need over the next decade for preservation of 5.5 million acres of land at a cost of $9.5 billion. In March, Californians have a chance to vote for a $2.1 billion Park bond (Prop 12) that includes $100 million for open space acquisition and planning in San Diego and Orange counties.

Developers want environmentalists to flock to support their redevelopment in-fill projects and embrace other pro-growth efforts. But environmentalists, as well as citizens at large, will remain wary until our region adequately addresses quality of life and growth together. Because that is what a smart approach would do - at least smart for the taxpayer and the rest of the public who is expected to shoulder the impacts. Prop 12, will be an important step in the right direction.

The business community, dedicated to growth in the economy, jobs and population, must also support the growth of parks. Their early and visible support for the Park bonds should be "a natural." I call upon the leadership of San Diego to support the Park Bond - Prop 12 on the March 7, 2000 ballot - early and promote its passage.