Will California Reap Growth Rewards with the Sustainable Communities Strategies Initiative?


Posted on 08 October 2012

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By Alan Kandel

Houston: We (California) have a problem, a Texas-sized problem.

California used to be the envy of the country - at one time, maybe of the world even. Ours was the land of plenty; it still is. The Golden State's number one industry - agriculture - is a cornucopia, a veritable cash crop to the tune of $32 billion per year - handily. The central San Joaquin Valley's contribution, incidentally, is about half.

But where acre after productive acre of the highest quality farmland once existed, much has been paved over. And left in its wake: sprawl, traffic congestion and deleterious air pollution. And the dirty air is pervasive. How problematic is it?

The American Lung Association reports that with regard to America's most polluted cities for smog, and for short-term and year-round particle pollution, California cities are among the most notorious. In the "10 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities" category, nine out of ten were in California with Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside topping the list. For the "10 Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution (Annual PM2.5)," Golden State cities filled the top five slots. And six of the "10 Most Polluted Cities by Short-Term Particle Pollution (24-hour PM2.5)" were in the state.

In an attempt to try to counteract the damage being done, the horn of plenty that California is, is getting back on track.

In 2009, the Moving Cooler Steering Committee, a multi-agency consortium, released its Moving Cooler: An Analysis of Transportation Strategies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions study. Listed in the study are four basic strategies for lessening the effects of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. In order these are:

  • Vehicle Technology—Improving the energy efficiency of the vehicle fleet by implementing more advanced technologies,
  • Fuel Technology—Reducing the carbon content of fuels through the use of alternative fuels (for instance, natural gas, biofuels, and hydrogen),
  • Travel Activity—Reducing the number of miles traveled by transportation vehicles, or shifting those miles to more efficient modes of transportation, and
  • Vehicle and System Operations—Improving the efficiency of the transportation network so that a larger share of vehicle operations occur in favorable conditions, with respect to speed and smoothness of traffic flow, resulting in more fuel efficient vehicle operations.

Add to those one more item: alter land use patterns to change travel behavior and activity.

Well, in the nation's most populous state this is the mission. With the addition of a new statewide Sustainable Communities Strategies approach, not only is there the prospect of reduced vehicle-produced emissions and related health care costs but improved mobility, job stimulation and economic growth to boot.

Where it all started

By the second half of the 21st century's first decade, conditions in state were deplorable and voters both wanted and demanded change, so much so, legislation was passed to: build a statewide high-speed rail system (Prop. 1A - the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century), help counter the effects of climate change by establishing goals to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions from all sources (AB 32 - the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles (SB375 - the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008).

Interestingly, if not astonishingly, in the late 1990s a contingent of San Joaquin Valley-based movers and shakers pooled their expertise to create A Landscape of Choice: Strategies for Improving Patterns of Community Growth, a comprehensive report that "issued the latest wake-up call to Fresno County, calling for more efficient, less auto-dependent communities that are more livable and conserve farmland," noted the American Farmland Trust in a December 2008 report.

A forerunner of the Sustainable Communities Strategies initiative prompted by Senate Bill 375, perhaps?

At any rate, lacking, apparently, was the ability to muster the political will necessary to institute effective change in Fresno County, in spite of such being called for in A Landscape of Choice in these terms: "Changing land use patterns to create compact and efficient growth; building stronger pedestrian-based neighborhoods and directing growth away from productive agricultural resources may seem like a daunting task. Nevertheless, the Fresno Growth Alternatives Alliance and its member organizations strongly believe that the community will benefit greatly from such change. In order to accomplish these objectives, we must create a constituency for change that recognizes the benefits of the planning principles contained in this report and that is committed to taking appropriate action."

The program today

A 2012 report produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Move LA, a southern California-based smart growth and transportation partnership, called A Bold Plan for Sustainable California Communities: A Report on the Implementation of Senate Bill 375, points out the southern California, Sacramento and San Diego regions over the past year "have become the first three regions in America to adopt transportation plans specifically designed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions." The premise is straightforward: "In each region, the processes of creating long range transportation and land use plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a state assigned target have brought unique challenges and successes. As intended by SB 375, each region created a tailored mix of land use decisions, transportation investments, and policies to achieve its target. These sustainable community strategies (SCSs) lay the foundation for smarter, more efficient growth and healthier communities, each of them offering lessons for other regions to follow."

In each region, the majority of citizens expressed preferences for residences located closer to work and shopping, and less time spent behind the wheel. Community planning in each of the aforesaid regions, "reflect these preferences while also reducing harmful air pollution, creating jobs, and saving people money." (Natural Resources Defense Council)

Eighteen state metro regions in all will eventually need to be in compliance.

The key difference for the southern California, San Diego and Sacramento regions this time and with respect to SB 375 implementation and Sustainable Communities Strategies initiatives’ adoption in particular, is there is demonstrated progress.

Moreover, "The [NRDC/Move LA] report finds that the Sacramento region's strategy is the best to date," notes NRDC staffer Kaid Benfield. "Indeed a 2004 plan called the Sacramento Blueprint was in many ways a prototype for the kind of effort that would eventually be required of all regions. The Blueprint provided for the region to absorb 1.7 million additional people and a million additional jobs by 2050 while, among many other things, saving 59 square miles of farmland and ranchland from permanent conversion to development, and retaining 65 percent of the region's housing in single-family homes and farmhouses."

Furthermore, "The report's authors note that it will allow a 39 percent population increase by 2035 while actually decreasing traffic congestion (measured as congested vehicle travel per capita). This is because of investments in new housing and jobs in walkable neighborhoods near transit, reducing per capita vehicle travel by around 9 percent compared to 2008 levels; the plan is projected to increase the number of trips made by transit, walking or bicycling by nearly 33 percent. Significantly, the region's footprint of developed land would expand by only 7 percent despite the much larger population increase." (Natural Resources Defense Council)

The long and short of this is it appears the Sacramento, southern California and San Diego regions are on the right track in terms of their adoption of the Sustainable Communities Strategies initiative and regarding the planning and implementation approaches they are taking. There is the expectation the remaining 15 metro areas, that must also be in compliance, will follow the lead of those California regions that have already wholeheartedly and unreservedly climbed aboard the Sustainable Communities Strategies bandwagon.

It could be years before the really big gains are made, but it's a start. Time will be the teller of all.


Alan Kandel is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by Union Pacific Railroad, and an advocate for improved and expanded rail service.

Condos are going to save the world from global warming? Far out, man!

I love this new sustainability fad. It is just another excuse for the government to manage the economy and life for us poor, dumb Americans who can't figure out things for ourselves.

It would be funny if it wasn't for the fact that we have all seen this before. I grew up in Detroit and I watch government program after government program attempt to recreate Detroit as a 21st century model city. How did that go?

You think this government sustainability programs are going to be better? You think the bureaucrats who brought you model cities are now so much smarter that their programs are going to work now? Hey, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

farmers do not file CEQA lawsuits so developers build auto dependent single famly McMansions on ag land and they can sell them at a very attractive price to the consumer who'll buy a 3/2 with parking for 2 Chevy Tahoes for the same as a 2/1 condo in a TOD.

CEQA has turned our housing markets upside down and made big sprawling developments much cheaper than dense transit oriented development.

Fix CEQA and get back to me.