Sprawl is closing the gap between cities and suburbs across Northern, Calif., putting a strain on the environment.
Growth Control Victories in the North SF Bay
By Rachel Gordon, San Francisco Chronicle, 4-18-2008
Fed up with the encroaching sprawl, Linda Jimenez fled Silicon Valley for Tracy in 1990 in search of more affordable housing and the small-town way of life of her Santa Clara County youth. Eventually, the sprawl caught up.
In 1990, Tracy, a friendly agricultural community separated from the Bay Area by the Altamont Pass, had fewer than 34,000 residents. Today, the mushrooming town, located at the western gateway to the Central Valley, has a population nearing 81,000.
The town sits as a symbol of the quest by working- and middle-class Bay Area residents to find housing they can afford - a pursuit that often draws them further from the traditional job centers in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
The result: A swath of residential and retail development that reaches toward the Sierra foothills, into the agricultural heartland of the Central Valley and south toward Salinas on land once reserved for ranching, farming and recreation.
The migration comes at costs to the environment: loss of natural habitat, increased greenhouse gases and a growing strain on the watershed.
"Sprawl is an inefficient and unsustainable use of our land resources," said Elizabeth Adam, spokeswoman for the Bay Area Open Space Council. "It is often the default pattern of development that solves short-term problems but has very negative effects on communities over time."
Just drive along major highways between Richmond and Auburn (Placer County), between Dublin and Manteca (San Joaquin County), between San Jose and Salinas and between Sacramento and Stockton, and the change is evident, with strip malls, office parks and cookie-cutter housing projects dotting the landscape.
"The cities and suburbs of Northern California are increasingly growing together," Gabriel Metcalf and Egon Terplan noted last year in a San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association report on the development trend they wrote. "Growth has outstripped the traditional nine-county Bay Area and has leapt north, south and east, joining with Sacramento and its suburbs."
The Bay Area's population, now estimated at 7.2 million, is projected to grow to 8.7 million by 2030, according to the California Department of Finance. But the population growth in the Bay Area's 12 neighboring counties - among them San Joaquin, Sacramento, Stanislaus and Santa Cruz - is projected to add even more people. By 2030, according to the state forecast, they will have 6.6 million residents, an increase of 2.1 million.
One of the chief problems is that the jobs have not been keeping up with the trend, forcing more people to endure long commutes.
"Between 1980 and 2000, the number of commuters from 12 neighboring counties into the Bay Area's nine-county core nearly quadrupled from 30,000 to 117,000 daily," Metcalf and Terplan found. "Given that the vast majority of commuters were driving alone, nearly 90,000 new cars were added to already-congested roadways from trips alone."
Vehicle emissions account for half the greenhouse gas emissions in California.
Jimenez, who works for Cal State East Bay, spends more than 2 1/2 hours a day in her car, driving back and forth between her home in Tracy and her job in Hayward. For a while, she took public transit - a mixture of BART and buses to reduce her carbon footprint - but that nearly doubled her commute time. She switched back to driving, but bought a less environmentally damaging hybrid car.
Despite the long commutes, Jimenez, 57, doesn't regret her decision to leave the Bay Area.
When she purchased her first home in Tracy in 1990, she paid $154,000 for a spacious, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. Fourteen years later she sold it for more than $400,000 and traded up for about $100,000 more to a five-bedroom, three-bath house with a large yard that she shares with her daughter, son in-law and grandchildren. Finding a house that size and at that price in the Bay Area, in a place as nice as Tracy, she said, would be difficult.
"I agree it's not the ideal situation, but we like the community and have established roots here," Jimenez said.
San Joaquin County, where Tracy is located, has undergone a major transformation in the past decade and a half. An estimated 115,196 acres of open space and agricultural land have been "urbanized," or developed for commercial and residential use, according data kept by the state Department of Conservation.
Statewide, an estimated 538,273 acres were developed between 1990 and 2004, or 38,448 annually. Nearly two-thirds of the development was on land once used for agriculture.
Between 1849 - the start of the Gold Rush - and 1990, an average of 20,052 undeveloped acres were urbanized annually.
Unless restrictions are placed on new development, an estimated 2.1 million acres in California, much of it supporting crops and grazing, is at risk of sprawl development, according to the American Farmland Trust, a national preservation group.
The loss of open space has altered California's economy and ecosystem.
"We're losing migration corridors for animals and compromising our watersheds and paving over productive farmland," said Amanda Brown-Stevens, field director for Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area land conservation and urban planning organization.
The challenge, she said, is getting people to value long-term sustainability more than short-term profit. If they won't do it on their own, then land-use laws can be enacted to prevent landowners and builders from developing open space.
Across the country, local jurisdictions have adopted urban-growth boundaries aimed at curtailing sprawl. In the Bay Area, such limits have been enacted in approximately three dozen cities and counties, from Morgan Hill to St. Helena. Vacaville, as part of a legal settlement with conservationists, was the latest to limit growth.
Greenbelt Alliance (http://greenbelt.org) has calculated that 401,500 acres of open space lands in the Bay Area could be developed in the next 30 years, with the growth hot spots centered along Interstate 80 in Solano County, eastern Contra Costa County, the East Bay's Tri-Valley area, Coyote Valley in southern Santa Clara County and Highway 101 in the North Bay through Sonoma County.
Brown-Stevens said the demands of population growth and the search for affordable housing can't be ignored. However, she said, there are development options that are less harmful to the environment than building on remote open lands.
One such option, she said, is the construction of compact residential developments with a mix of condos, single-family homes and apartments in cities. Ideally, they would be near stores and job centers and have easy access to public transit to make it more convenient for people to get around without driving.
But convincing people that the American Dream can be found in an urban neighborhood where sometimes the only open space is the back stoop or the neighborhood playground won't be easy.
Still, Brown-Stevens suggested that the time is right to make the argument.
"I think people are sick of traffic," she said, "and they do care about the issue of global warming, and they do want to spend more time with their families and spend less time in their cars."
Victory: Pittsburg City Council rejects flawed hillside ordinance!
On Monday April 8, Pittsburg's City Council rejected a flawed hillside ordinance and sent it back to the city planning staff to completely redo. Greenbelt Alliance and local residents have been working for a full year to get the Planning Commission to create an ordinance that truly protects the hills instead of opening them up for grading and sprawl development. This is a major victory and an important opportunity to protect these iconic East Bay hills.
Success: Vacaville adopts urban growth boundary!
On Tuesday March 25, the City Council in Vacaville, one of Solano County's fastest-growing cities, unanimously adopted an urban growth boundary! The petition for the boundary was signed by 10,000 Vacaville residents (more than voted in the last election). The boundary defines where growth should and should not occur, and will protect thousands of acres of farmlands and hills around the city.