Publisher’s View: Smart Growth

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Not long after the arrival of the mass market automobile, which enabled the creation of suburbs stretching long distances away from central cities, land use planners sounded the alarm about “sprawl.”  Sprawl was gobbling up farmland and eco-systems, producing soulless rows of ticky-tacky housing, and fostering traffic-jammed, smog-emitting highways.  It pulled families out of urban areas, leaving behind poverty, segregation, and underfunded schools.  Sprawl was like an overweight, diabetic octopus: it gobbled-up resources and spawned weak subdivisions that depended on an expensive network of sterile asphalt and a constant infusion of poisonous foreign oil to survive.

The solution to sprawl, according to land use experts, is “smart growth” or “compact development”.  Smart growth takes two techno-words that sound swell and puts them together into one neat package.  Under the smart growth theory, development would be funneled into densely populated, public-transportation-rich, pedestrian-friendly nodes – Oakland’s Rockridge, or any number of San Francisco neighborhoods – to create utopic scenes of happy families holding hands as they buy organic produce at the farmer’s market, on their way to the awesome office-school complex walking distance from their zero emission homes.

Smart growth initially sounded dumb to some people. Developers insisted that their customers wouldn’t buy anything other than a 2,000 square foot home surrounded by a lushly watered lawn.  Many Californians thought that cities were icky, filled with weapon-packing students, criminals and drug addicts.  During the second half of the 20th Century, sprawl accelerated.  Average home sizes in the West swelled, from 1,715 square feet in 1973 to 2,524 in 2007, just before the mortgage market bubble popped.

But even while homebuyers gobbled up ranchettes in Antioch and Pittsburg, a counter-trend was developing:  people started to return to cities.  Three California municipalities – Fontana, Irvine, and Bakersfield – were among the top ten 10 municipalities nationwide with 100,000 or more residents with the greatest population gains between 2000 and 2010.  The Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove was the fastest growing mid-sized U.S. city during that decade.  Daly City, home of the ticky-tacky house, emerged as the nation’s sixth densest city, reflecting a triumph for the Bay Area Rapid Transit station located there, spillover effects from an increasingly costly San Francisco, and an indication of how deeply embedded low-density patterns are in the rest of America.  Between 2010 and 2013, San Francisco’s density, already the country’s second highest, increased by 680 persons per square mile. 

Yet while density has increased, sprawl has barely abated.  Though the 2008 recession and recent back-to-the-city movement moderated ex-urban development over the past half-decade, between 2000 and 2010 93 percent of Bay Area growth still occurred in the suburbs. 

Steadily rising density in central nodes, a still intact pattern of low- to moderate-density development elsewhere, and under-investment in the “smart” part of growth (public transit, open space, excellent schools, affordable housing) have acted to reinforce the very attributes land use planners want to avoid.  The San Francisco-Oakland area has the nation’s third worst traffic congestion.  The number of vehicles crossing the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge during morning commute hours has jumped by 43 percent since 2010, and by another 19 percent in just the past year; Bay Bridge morning commute traffic has almost doubled over the past half-decade.

Housing shortages in San Francisco have driven rents and home prices sky-high, spilling over to adjacent counties, a push-pull that’s likely to fully re-ignite past low density development and long-distance commute patterns. Ticky-tacky housing has been joined by blocky-boring buildings in Mission Bay and elsewhere. San Francisco’s middle class – households earning from $75,000 and $100,000 – have dropped from 11.8 percent to 10.6 percent of the City’s population between 2009 and 204, while the number of families pulling in $200,000 or more rose to 15 percent of households.

The end result is more like a redistribution of demographics and a dumbing-down of architecture than a smart growth triumph, with even more deeply embedded racial and income segregation in schools and neighborhoods. The rich and single are concentrated in San Francisco; the poor and working class are in the East Bay; Marin and the Peninsula are same embodiments of sprawl as ever. The relationship between geography and demographics in the Bay Area are now nearly the same as those manifested in New York: Manhattan – San Francisco – Brooklyn – Oakland – Westchester – Mill Valley – and Queens – Hayward. But, with more sprawl.

It’s time to wise up about smart growth.  Population pressures and economics are working to both increase density and bake-in sprawl; it’s a pattern we’re stuck with, unless there is a large-scale natural or political upheaval.  It’s up to government to channel the high-low density stream as best it can, adopt and pay for policies that create lovely communities amidst the river of growth, and get out of the way of the market when it delivers likable solutions. 

In San Francisco, that means less focus on a Warriors arena-complex and construction of the next South-of-Market big block, and more on relentlessly creating excellent schools, a mix of manicured and wild open spaces, a deep and diverse public transportation system, and income assistance and support to those who need it.  We fought the sprawl and the sprawl won.  But while land use may continue to sprawl, government should get tighter.