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Beyond Sprawl: New Patterns of Growth to Fit the New California
Bank of America
See also: photographs of sprawl development
This report suggests new ideas about how California can continue to grow while still fostering the economic vitality and quality of life that makes it such a vibrant place to live and work. It is sponsored by a diverse coalition-the California Resources Agency, a government conservation agency; Bank of America, California's largest bank; Greenbelt Alliance, the Bay Area's citizen conservation and planning organization; and the Low Income Housing Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to low-income housing.
California is at a unique and unprecedented point in its history-a point at which we face profound questions about our future growth that will determine the state's economic vitality and quality of life for the next generation and beyond.
One of the most fundamental questions we face is whether California can afford to support the pattern of urban and suburban development, often referred to as "sprawl," that has characterized its growth since World War II.
There is no question that this pattern of growth has helped fuel California's unparalleled economic and population boom, and that it has enabled millions of Californians to realize the enduring dream of home ownership. But as we approach the 21st century, it is clear that sprawl has created enormous costs that California can no longer afford. Ironically, unchecked sprawl has shifted from an engine of California's growth to a force that now threatens to inhibit growth and degrade the quality of our life.
This report, sponsored by a diverse coalition of organizations, is meant to serve as a call for California to move beyond sprawl and rethink the way we will grow in the future. This is not a new idea, but it is one that has never been more critical or urgent.
Despite dramatic changes in California over the last decade, traditional development patterns have accelerated. Urban job centers have decentralized to the suburbs. New housing tracts have moved even deeper into agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas. Private auto use continues to rise.
This acceleration of sprawl has surfaced enormous social, environmental and economic costs, which until now have been hidden, ignored, or quietly borne by society. The burden of these costs is becoming very clear. Businesses suffer from higher costs, a loss in worker productivity, and underutilized investments in older communities.
California's business climate becomes less attractive than surrounding states. Suburban residents pay a heavy price in taxation and automobile expenses, while residents of older cities and suburbs lose access to jobs, social stability, and political power. Agriculture and ecosystems also suffer.
There is a fundamental dynamic to growth, whether it be the growth of a community or a corporation, that evolves from expansion to maturity. The early stages of growth are often exuberant and unchecked-that has certainly been the case in post-World War II California. But unchecked growth cannot be sustained forever. At some point this initial surge must mature into more managed, strategic growth. This is the point where we now stand in California.
We can no longer afford the luxury of sprawl. Our demographics are shifting in dramatic ways. Our economy is restructuring. Our environment is under increasing stress. We cannot shape California's future successfully unless we move beyond sprawl.
This is not a call for limiting growth, but a call for California to be smarter about how it grows-to invent ways we can create compact and efficient growth patterns that are responsive to the needs of people at all income levels, and also help maintain California's quality of life and economic competitiveness.
It is a tall order-one that calls for us to rise above our occasional isolation as individuals and interest groups, and address these profound challenges as a community. All of us-government agencies, businesses, community organizations and citizens-play a role. Our actions should be guided by the following goals:
California is at the crossroads of change.
Our economy is emerging from its worst downturn in 60 years-a downturn that has required nearly all of the state's major industries to retool for greater competitiveness in a global marketplace. Our demographic profile is changing dramatically. New racial and immigration patterns are rapidly producing a truly multicultural society, creating a variety of related social and economic issues. At the same time, California has emerged as one of the most urbanized states in the union, as our metropolitan areas continue to grow in population and scale.
In the face of this change, California remains shackled to costly patterns of suburban sprawl. Even as our economy and our society are being reinvented daily, we continue to abandon people and investments in older communities as development leap-frogs out to fringe areas to accommodate another generation of low-density living. And we continue to create communities that rely almost exclusively on automobiles for transportation. In short, the "new" California-with 32 million people and counting- is using land and other resources in much the same fashion as the "old" California, with only 10 million people.
We cannot afford another generation of sprawl. As the Governor's Growth Management Council stated in a recent report: "What may have been possible with 10 or even 20 million people is simply not sustainable for a population of twice that much in the same space." Continued sprawl may seem inexpensive for a new homebuyer or a growing business on the suburban fringe, but the ultimate cost-to those homeowners, to the government, and to society at large-is potentially crippling. Allowing sprawl may be politically expedient in the short run, but in the long run it will make California economically uncompetitive and create social, environmental and political problems we may not be able to solve.
At a time when economic growth is slow and social tensions are high, it is easy to dismiss an issue like suburban sprawl as superfluous. Yet it lies at the heart of the very economic, social and environmental issues that we face today. Rapid population growth and economic change are occurring in a state increasingly characterized by a limited supply of developable land, environmental stress at the metropolitan fringe, and older communities in transition. With the onset of economic recovery, the next few years will give rise to land-use decisions of fundamental importance. They will help determine whether our state can succeed in re-establishing the economic and social vitality that have made it such a successful place to live and work for more than 140 years.
Suburban Sprawl and the "Old" California
In the decades after World War II, California emerged as an economic and political powerhouse, providing jobs, housing and prosperity for most of its rapidly growing population.
Underlying this success was a development pattern that emphasized expanding metropolitan areas, conversion of farmland and natural areas to residential use, and heavy use of the automobile. In the postwar era, this way of life worked for California. With a prosperous and land-rich state, most families were able to rise to the middle class and achieve the dream of home ownership. Government agencies and private businesses were able to provide the infrastructure of growth-new homes, roads, schools, water systems, sewage treatment facilities, and extensions of gas and electric distribution.
Within the last generation, however, this postwar formula for success has become overwhelmed by its own consequences. Since the 1970s, housing has become more expensive, roads have become more congested, the supply of developable land has dwindled, and, because of increasing costs, government agencies have not been able to keep up with the demand for public services.
Since the late 1970s, several efforts have been initiated to address the question of how to manage California's growth, but all have failed-some for lack of consensus, some for lack of engaged constituency, some simply because of bad timing.
The Challenge of the "New" California
In the 1990s, California is undergoing change of such scale and significance that it will literally redefine the state. To succeed, the new California must recognize and build upon the following changes in positive ways.
California's population continues to grow at a remarkably fast pace. Today's total of approximately 32 million people represents a doubling of the population since the mid-1960s, when California became the nation's most populous state.
During the boom years of the 1980s, California added more than 6 million new residents, a population larger than all but a few of the 49 other states. Even during the bust years of the early 1990s, the state's population grew at a rate of almost a half-million people per year-in effect, adding another Oakland or Fresno every year-even as we have suffered a net loss in the number of jobs.
This continuing surge in population puts pressure on both existing communities and on the remaining supply of undeveloped land, making it extremely difficult for traditional suburban patterns to accommodate more people.
While growing rapidly, California's population is also changing in significant ways. The demographic changes are well documented. Latinos-whose roots extend to Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean-are growing rapidly in number and may outnumber Anglos a generation from now. Californians of Asian ancestry now make up almost 10 percent of the population. African-Americans remain an important racial group, and the state's mosaic is rounded out by Native Americans, immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East, and others who bring great diversity to the state. California is truly one of the world's most multicultural societies.
Underneath the racial diversity lies another important change in the
state's population patterns that will have a profound effect on California's
attitudes toward growth over the next generation.
The birth rate is also an increasing source of population growth. During the 1990s recession, "natural increase"-the net total of births over deaths-has accounted for almost 400,000 new people each year. Tomorrow's California will include-for the first time-a vast pool of people who are Californians from birth. They will want what Californians before them have wanted-education, jobs and housing. Most will expect the state to find a way to accommodate them. But their numbers are so huge that they probably cannot be sustained by traditional suburban development patterns.
During the recession, California has undergone an unprecedented economic restructuring. The state has lost 400,000 manufacturing jobs since 1990, causing businesses and workers alike to rethink old assumptions about how to ensure prosperity.
Traditional foundations of the state's economy, such as aerospace and defense, have been drastically reduced and will probably never return, at least not in their previous form. Others-such as entertainment, technology, the garment industry and agriculture-remain just as important as ever. But they too have undergone tremendous change, becoming leaner and more efficient in response to global competition. And small businesses remain the largest source of new job creation. In the near future, the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement will begin to be felt.
These economic changes are also putting pressure on the state's land-use
patterns. The loss of manufacturing jobs is emptying out the state's long-established
industrial areas, usually located in older communities. Downsizing and
technological change in other industries is also rendering older buildings
obsolete and creating a demand for new buildings-often in new suburbs-that
are both inexpensive and flexible. The closure of many military bases
is bringing a huge amount of land to the real estate market that will
either extend sprawl or encourage new
In response to both demographic and economic pressure, California has become the most urbanized state in the union. According to the 1990 Census, more than 80 percent of all Californians live in metropolitan areas of 1 million people or more, with 30 percent of the state's population living in Los Angeles County alone.
This large-scale urbanization means that California's people and businesses compete intensely with each other for space to live and work. The edges of metropolitan areas continue to grow to accommodate expansion of population and economic activity, while some neglected inner-city areas are left behind. These patterns increase the stress of daily life while, at the same time, put more pressure on land and environmental resources at the metropolitan fringe.
SPRAWL AND ITS CAUSES
All of these factors-a growing population, a changing economy, and increased urbanization-have been present in California for many years. But they have accelerated in the 1990s, while traditional suburban development patterns have continued. In a state with such powerful growth dynamics, the results are astonishing. The following trends are typical of the effects of sprawl over the last 10 to 20 years:
THE COST OF SPRAWL
The cost and consequences of sprawl have been documented among academics
and planning experts for more than two decades. In the early 1970s, planning
consultants Lawrence Livingston and John Blayney produced a landmark study
showing that in some cases, a California community would be better off
financially if it used a combination of zoning and land acquisition instead
of permitting development of low-density subdivisions. A few years later,
the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality produced its landmark report,
The Cost of Sprawl-the first comprehensive analysis of sprawl's true expense
to society. As fiscal and cost-benefit analysis techniques have become
more refined, the true cost of sprawl has become much more apparent.
Sprawling suburbs may be cheaper in the short-term for individuals and families who buy houses in new communities, but their "hidden" costs may ultimately be passed on to taxpayers in a variety of ways.
Taken together, it is clear that all these costs have contributed to California s dire fiscal situation during the 1990s, which has strained state and local government budgets to the breaking point.
Many businesses benefit from suburban locations. But all businesses, both small and large, also bear many of the following costs.
Residents of New Suburbs
There is no question that new suburban residents are, in many ways, the principal beneficiaries of suburban sprawl. They often live in new and affordable neighborhoods which they perceive as safe and prosperous. Yet many suburban residents are becoming increasingly aware that they pay a high price for these benefits in the following ways.
Residents of central cities and older suburbs are among the biggest losers in the sprawl process. Once they were among the most fortunate of metropolitan dwellers, because their central location provided access to jobs, shopping, and other amenities. However, sprawl has penalized them by creating or accelerating the following trends:
transportation, because it is difficult to commute to most suburban jobs without a car.
Agriculture remains one of California's leading industries. Yet sprawl continues to take a heavy toll on California agriculture in the following ways.
Traditional development patterns have taken a massive toll on all three basic elements of the natural environment: land, air, and water.
Originally published on the Bank of America's Web site.
Copyright © 1996, BankAmerica Corporation.
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