Durable Growth

Urbanism gaining ground, but outcome may remain in doubt in the North Bay

Downtown Street in Chico

Downtown Street in Chico

For the last few posts, I’ve riffed on arguments made by Jeff Speck in his book “Walkable City”.  It’s been a remarkably easy way to write, because Speck offers a wealth of riff-worthy arguments.

I’ll continue on this path for today before leaving Speck for awhile.  But I will return to “Walkable City”.  It’s a remarkable book that I continue to recommend highly.

Speck argues that the battle between urbanism and sprawl is tending different directions in different places.  There is much confirmation to be found.  Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council looks at the numbers and points to places where sprawl seems to have the upper hand.  Closer to home, Sacramento County has recently approved a project that appears to be textbook sprawl.  Ultimately, I’m thankful to live in the North Bay where we haven’t been as fully seduced by sprawl.

From Speck’s introduction:

We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities – after forgetting for four – yet we’ve somehow not be able to pull it off.  Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980.  But the planners have yet to win over the city.

Certain large cities, yes.  If you make your home in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, or a handful of other special places, you can have some confidence that things are on the right track.  But those locations are the exception.  In the small and midsized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse.  This is not bad planning, but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning.  The planners were so wrong for so many years that now that they are mostly right, they are mostly ignored.

Benfield concurs, looking in depth at where sprawl continues to be the predominant form of new land use.  Consistent with Speck’s observation, Benfield finds sprawl occurring not in metropolises, but in the hinterlands.

Closer to the North Bay is a recent land-use approval in Sacramento County.  On a controversial vote reported in the Sacramento Bee, the County Supervisors approved an 8,000-home master plan on 2,700-acre site, which is a disheartening 3 homes per acre.  The approval was based on the hope of a university occupying a portion of the land, an anticipation that, if not a complete pipedream, is at least unlikely.

Luckily, the North Bay, although not yet a bastion of urbanism, hasn’t been as badly seduced by sprawl.  Perhaps “stroads” function as our canary in the mineshaft.

Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns writes about stroads, a coined word for a roadway that a part rural highway and part city street, usually an overwhelming width of pavement with too many driveways, often accessing outsized retail, and providing an inhospitable environment for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Folks in the North Bay sometimes ask me to point to a stroad in our part of the world.  I struggle with the question.  Perhaps South Santa Rosa Boulevard in Santa Rosa?  Or maybe Soscol Avenue in Napa?  But neither is nearly as bad as the Midwest examples to which Marohn points.

One of the North Bay folks recently took a trip to Albuquerque.  He reported back that now he had truly seen what a stroad was.  And that he was thankful to live in the North Bay where we didn’t have stroads.

He’s right.  The North Bay wasn’t as fully seduced by sprawl as many other places.  Benfield doesn’t list the North Bay among his worst sprawl offenders.  But Speck would put us among the places where there are lessons still to be learned and minds to be changed.

The transition to urbanism will be easier for the North Bay.  But it’s a transition that still must be made.  The North Bay may have a competitive advantage over other regions because we have a headstart on urbanism.  But it’s a headstart that we can squander if we don’t pay attention.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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