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To tackle global warming, California takes aim at sprawl

California, long on the vanguard of battles over land use, is poised to pass legislation that would harmonize regional planning efforts with the state’s overarching goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The most ambitious anti-sprawl legislation in the country, the bill seeks to coordinate housing, transit, and commercial development to reduce the impact of growth on the environment.

Coincidentally, I happen to be in the middle of Robert Bruegmann’s *Sprawl: A Compact History*. Although not quite pro-sprawl, the book is decidedly anti-anti-sprawl, portraying efforts at shaping or controlling land use as largely the outgrowth of shifting and highly subjective aesthetic standards that disregard the desire of ordinary citizens for privacy, mobility, and choice. In this view, the automobile, bete noir of sprawl antagonists, has merely made the timeless privileges of the affluent few available to the middle-class many. Without entirely dismissing the problems associated with sprawl, Bruegmann suggests that many of the proposed solutions are destined to fail, either because complex urban systems respond in unexpected ways to simplistic planning measures, or because such measures offer fragile levees against so strong a flood of consumer desire for room to stretch out.

Although Bruegmann’s argument is thin in places, the book does raise useful questions about how, when, and even why to try to shape the development of our cities and their surroundings. Such questions are helpful in clarifying goals and focusing legislative efforts toward areas they are most likely to have a positive impact (and least likely to do harm).

In many respects, California’s new regulations start in a strong place. They have a clear and quantifiable aim: the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those from transportation. Further, the regulations avoid a one-size-fits-all approach, as they must in a state as large and diverse as California. Instead, local governments will submit regional plans to state officials, who have billions of dollars of infrastructure funding to grant as incentives.

Further, the bill unites a diverse coalition of often adversarial groups. Developers, affordable housing advocates, and environmentalists (with some notable holdouts) have rallied around the legislation’s balance of carrots and sticks.

None of this, of course, guarantees that the submitted plans or the liberal application of government money will have the desired effect of bringing about low-emissions development. It’s worth keeping in mind that price levers are often a far better way of exerting pressure on complex systems than imposing direct controls. High gas prices are already slowing or reversing certain long-standing patterns of growth. Carbon pricing, gas taxes, congestion charges — all are effective tools for bringing direct reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding possibly inefficient, restrictive, or just ineffective mandates.

This may be the most important point in favor of California’s new planning regulations: they take place in the context of a set of energy policies designed to align consumer incentives with the broader planning effort. If the effort succeeds, California will likely once again set the pattern for other states to follow. If it fails, it will force urban planners to take a harder look at the tools in their toolbox.

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