By Mark Dempsey
SACRAMENTO/DAVIS, CA – Many people don’t appreciate our dependency on fossil fuels has a local component.
That’s right, the design of our cities, when it precludes walking and encourages longer and longer commuting, builds those greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the structure of daily life, setting them literally in concrete.
Pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods can cut vehicle miles traveled in half (by one-third to two-thirds, depending on the neighborhood).
“Mixed-use” means that there are transit stops, and transit destinations like offices, and/or shops, even light industry, within residential neighborhoods. Look at any pre-1950 neighborhood to see what this looks like.
Are these favored by the [genuflects] market? Yes. (Sacramento’s) McKinley Park, an older mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly Sacramento neighborhood, is literally, per square foot, the most valuable real estate in the region.
As another sign we’re “riding the horse in the direction it’s already going,” the state now mandates “complete streets” (streets designed for pedestrians and bicycles as well as autos) for all new development. State planning standards also have retired fast-flowing traffic as a desirable design criterion, and now focus on minimizing VMT (vehicle miles traveled).
This is very good news and a sign that public policymakers are paying attention to climate, too. The state has been the most receptive government to these observations.
Even the Sacramento Bee’s Extra published an editorial noting that strip malls can be a (mixed-use) source of land for affordable housing. The editorial praised Peter Calthorpe’s designs in this area. Calthorpe designed Laguna West, a mixed-use development sabotaged by its lack of denser housing.
Local architect David Mogavero says there are moves underway right now to develop part of Stockton Blvd. this mixed-use way. The City of Citrus Heights is also formulating plans to make Sunrise Mall a mixed-use transit-friendly destination. (Note: While you can see plans online for the redesigned Sunrise Mall, it’s cheap to draw lines on paper; a bit more to actually build what’s proposed.)
A note of caution: One sticking point for most NIMBYs is density. People impacted by demands for services (parks, schools, etc.) from multi-family development aren’t happy that these plans don’t pay their own way—a sad “side benefit” of Prop 13—and certainly object to a lot of strangers diminishing public services for existing neighbors.
Laguna West couldn’t build apartments because of density objections (and a lack of apartment construction money). Mello-Roos bonds could fix this, but Brandolini’s law still applies: It takes orders of magnitude more energy to debunk the B.S. than to create it in the first place.
At any rate, enough people must be within a comfortable walk of transit stops or neighborhood commerce before either of these are economically viable.
Berkeley planner Robert Cervero’s East Bay studies suggest 11 units per acre (slightly more than duplexes) is the density threshold above which such economically viable transit and neighborhood commerce begin to work. Without this 11-per-acre density and the pedestrian-friendly mixed-use design, transit languishes and must be subsidized.
People in the ‘burbs don’t want to increase the gas tax to pay for transit because they don’t use (and never will use) transit as it currently exists. Land use must support transit, or you get the designed-to-fail-working-as-designed transit Sacramento currently enjoys. (JFYI, the Urban Land Institute’s Dollars & Cents of Shopping Centers confirms Cervero’s research if you calculate a half-mile is not too far for pedestrians to walk to shop or board transit.)
Outlying “greenfield” development encourages commutes too, and the region, which has 20 years’ worth of unbuilt infill, needs literally no more of such development for another couple of decades. Such development needlessly adds more GHG emissions to the region.
So why are the various local government even considering approving more commute-generating greenfield development?
Answer: Because the land speculators can purchase agricultural land for a few thousand dollars an acre then sell that, once development is approved, for 50 to 100 times what they paid for it. They bought 20-foot-under-water floodplain surrounded by weak levees in North Natomas for about $2K/acre and sold it to builders (Winncrest homes) for $200K per acre.
Provide a 5,000 percent – 10,000 percent profit for any venture, and I’d say cockroaches will crawl out from under the baseboards to do it. “Land-speculator-friendly” representatives dominate most local governments and the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
So, in addition to lobbying our national government to make petroleum more expensive, I’d encourage environmentalists to object to any locally proposed outlying development like the 1,000+ acres near Elk Grove or the South-of-50 development proposed near Folsom.
(Where did the author come from?: He spent nearly two decades in the real estate business, and roughly half that time on a Sacramento County Community Planning Advisory Council, so he notes he has a land-use planning education with more than just opinion to back it up. You might also try Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck’s Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream for more about the above.)