To tackle global warming, California takes aim at sprawl

Written by adam


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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  1. left

    The problem here is it’s more funding to push projects that the state just doesn’t have. California has a nasty habit of incredible overruns at the state level and then getting the feds to bail them out. To be fair most states do this these days and then claim balanced budgets, but if they didn’t then the fed budget would be balanced. If califorina wants to slather on billions in funding for a program that will ultimately drive housing even higher, that’s fine, but make califorians pay for it.
    It’s time for good climate legislation, but it’s also time to be fiscally responsible, and CA doesn’t have the money to pay the bills. As a refreshing aside. MD actually raised it’s state taxes to balance it’s budget and didn’t make everyone else pay for it.

  2. Ted

    The goal though, with all types of investment in infrastructure and planning – beyond the admiral goal of environmental improvements – is economic development. Good planning will lead to zones of improved commercial and real estate opportunities centered around public transportation. Increased revenue as a result also leads to increased revenue for the state in the long run.
    The problem comes in when solutions to problems like gridlock are overly short-sighted. Throwing money at problems like congestion by widening highways, increasing parking, etc, doesn’t have a real long-term payoff. Good planning is an investment, not only environmentally, but for the private sector as well.
    (all of this isn’t to say that planning is the solution to everything, and that skeptics like Bruegmann don’t have valid concerns)

  3. Daniel Barker

    Let’s be realistic.
    Population in the United States is decreasing – the people already living here have a negative growth rate.
    The reason population is going up is immigration. As long as people move to the United States in record numbers, wilderness will be destroyed, greenhouse gas emissions will increase, natural resources such as water will become scarce.
    I find it interesting the people ranting the loudest about the United States and global warming are the most responsible due to illegal immigration.

  4. michael

    This is a complex problem and anyone who attempts to think they see all needs a pill.
    Adam, thank you for this article!
    A couple of trigger thoughts;
    What is and what could be require turning a huge ship; we’ve invested millions in master planning – good or bad – and many will be reluctant to throw investments away even if these represent poorly thought out ideas. In fact, convincing a planning board it has been planning poorly might require a magic show, the very first hurdle.
    How we develop plans for growth should come under scrutiny here; we predispose, at some level, how land should be used on an orderly blueprint without examining how a culture might grow on its own. I’m not suggesting a free-for-all, but, that culture is an organism and with a little help its vernacular, unique to every town, might actually preserve certain land uses and reduce the need for ‘trips’ by so many vehicles…why not walk. Unfortunately, many towns copy ideas from other towns thinking this is the way to step up to modern urban planning…oops!
    This may read as a little oblique but it is an example of how far we have unwhittingly knitted life with the auto. Current parking lot design these days is based upon maximum occupancy and all of its circulation, and, insurance/fire codes. The first time I stood in front of a Home Depot I was amazed that a small plane might actual land safely in front of the building. We’ve accomodated fire trucks and cars and every other form of transportation to a point where we CANNOT walk any where. When a masterplan is thoughtful enough to inlcude pedestrian circulation, it sometimes does so within poor proximity to destinations and are never used…and still, these circulation routes must be maintained during inclement weather and repaires kept up to avoid legal problems…what a waste. The real irony here is that these circulation patterns are required by insurance companies and fire codes to reduce the risk that for example a Home Depot might burn down one day. Oddly, this mentality places pedestrians at risk every time they step out of a car onto the pavement…what, or who, really maters here?
    Convoluted for sure, but that’s the thread we have woven. Undoing 100 years of growth won’t be easy.

  5. Paul

    It’s really time to go back to the drawing board and let communities experiment with new forms of development that anticipate the changing realities of our time. “Energy security” concerns and concerns about global warming must weigh heavily on those who are responsible for making decisions about zoning.
    Try riding a bike for all your needs, such as shopping and commuting, and you will understand the tremendous potential and opportunity in communities that are thoughtfully designed.
    Sprawl doesn’t make good economic sense.

  6. Dick Spiller

    Adam Stein,
    Please email the legislative designation of the California Anti-Sprawl bill to which you refer in your 9/16 article (and/or its sponsor). This might be a useful idea for Tennessee. Thanks, [email protected]

  7. Daniel Barker

    You are correct – people have noticed for years that most developments are designed for the automobile!
    I was getting around to it a couple of minutes ago and found a copy of the meeting of the Sandpiper property owners association in Lakeland, Florida.
    A resident of Sandpiper has noticed that due to increase in petroleum, more walkers and bikers are crossing Walt Loop Road at entrance 6 to get to the shopping center on the other side, and he proposed a flashing light.
    I just wrote to find the name of the property owner on the other side of entrance 6.
    My goal is to install a traffic light designed for non-motorized vehicles. It would allow pedestrians, bikers and golf carts to cross at entrance 6.
    I got the idea for this when I lived in Utah. There are pedestrian traffic signals on the south side of Temple Square facing Crossroads Mall. The pedestrian traffic light is in the middle of the block.

  8. michael

    …for me, a pedestrian traffic light is a reaction to the auto. Perhaps you are highlighting just that as an example Daniel. However, that one is needed, points to what or who is important…more active and costly infrastructure displacing what ought to be a simpler ideal; we do need a more pedestrian world for many reasons.

  9. Lorne Craig

    Bruegmann’s position that “the automobile… has merely made the timeless privileges of the affluent few available to the middle-class many” is at best naive. For a short period of time (perhaps 1959 – 1961) the easy commmute from the nine-to-five office back to the home in the suburbs to play with the kids and barbecue in the backyard may have delivered something along these lines. But the realities of our ballooning population and the increasing demands on our time have left this suburban fantasy a hollow promise that lives only in real estate brochures.
    Those of us who live within easy transit, walking or biking distance from our jobs, stores and schools enjoy a much richer lifestyle than the so-called ‘affluent’ settlers in today’s sprawl. Bruegmann might want to think about the fact that this vision of middle class affluence was largely created by Madison Avenue and has little to do with the true wealth of life, or the lifestyles of the truly wealthy.

  10. Adam Stein

    Well, there’s a lot I don’t agree with in Bruegmann’s book, but he does do a pretty good job of knocking this sort of stuff down:
    Bruegmann might want to think about the fact that this vision of middle class affluence was largely created by Madison Avenue and has little to do with the true wealth of life, or the lifestyles of the truly wealthy.
    People have been escaping the city since long before there was such a thing as Madison Avenue (literally) — but you used to have to be really rich to do so. Whatever the “true wealth of life” may be, people really do seem to enjoy having a little room to spread out in. I think the trick is to increase the relative attractiveness of more sustainable arrangements, not to deny the appeal of suburbs.

  11. michael

    Adam, can you build upon your last sentence?

  12. Adam Stein

    I’m just making the general point that people will engage in more sustainable behaviors to the extent that such behaviors become cost- and convenience-competitive with the unsustainable behaviors. Presumably any successful planning efforts will take such considerations into account.
    This is genuinely hard to do, because automobiles happen to be enormously convenient. But it’s certainly possible. For example, I wrote a little while ago about successful efforts around the world to shift people toward bicycle use. Obviously bicycles aren’t going to replace cars anytime soon, but incremental improvements are possible in a lot of different domains. People really do like living in detached houses with fences and yards, but they’re not impervious to incentives.

  13. michael

    Thanks…we are creatures of habit and convenience…a tuff circle to break out from

  14. Daniel Barker

    I have made the commitment to population and growth. I have no children, and plan on one child and adoption.
    As time goes on, people are beginning to see the madness of development out of control.
    It is interesting that this summer some of the candidates proposed eliminating the federal gas tax, which would have had two results: more consumption of gasoline and less tax revenue.

  15. Xaker

    Interesting video, at the end it talks about a new way to design cities. It’s something we all know, but it is good to hear that is being done. Where is it being done? China, not the US of course. We let China do everything for us… even save the environment.

  16. Xaker

    James Howard Kunstler: The tragedy of suburbia
    This is more about architecture and not fully focused on the environment and green building. It is interesting that he describes that inefficient cities (sprawl) makes us inherently sad besides the affect they have on the environment. It is worth the 20 minutes.