It appears a consensus is forming among local governments that building more livable and sustainable communities is an immediate priority. At a conference in San Francisco yesterday, elected officials from across the Bay Area, along with business, housing, development and transportation groups, called for a coordinated land use and transportation planning strategy to account for the nearly two million more people projected to live in the Bay Area by 2035.
Jeremy Madsen, Executive Director of the Greenbelt Alliance, presented the Grow Smart Bay Area plan and challenged regional leaders to adopt its principles to accomplish sustainable growth, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve quality of life for residents. The plan emphasizes infill development in transit-rich areas, and identifies seven “smart spots” that the Greenbelt Alliance says could accommodate 4/5 of the region’s 25-year growth.
In a panel following Madsen’s presentation, regional leaders, including San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, pledged to work to implement the Grow Smart Bay Area vision. Will Fleissig, a developer with Communitas Development in San Francisco, expressed optimism that the political environment and demographic trends were auspicious for more sustainable growth.
“I think that we all have to admit there are some tectonic policy plates that are converging,” said Fleissig.
He said that an aging population and the trend for young people preferring urban neighborhoods bodes well for increasing transit-oriented development. “Where are the x and y generation people going to want to live? They don’t want to live out in the suburbs. It’s just not going to be the case.”
San Jose Mayor Reed described the plan’s vision in terms of San Jose’s economic survival. “My challenge as mayor is to make sure San Jose stays the capital of Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley remains the innovation center of the world,” said Reed. “So that’s a pretty big task considering that we have to continue to create jobs and we have to continue to make room for the people who are going to hold those jobs.”
Reed said that San Jose had already managed to grow its population by half a million people in 30 years, and was prepared to do so again. “We have added about 500,000 people” without significantly expanding the city’s boundaries, Reed said. “This plan, the elements of this plan, are things we’ve had success with already in San Jose as we added those 500,000 people to our city. So we will be working around those elements again.”
Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council and a chief of staff to former San Francisco Mayor Frank M. Jordan, was optimistic about public reception to higher densities. Previously, he said, it was more difficult to move forward with such projects. “I can point to a lot of sites that you can see from this 52nd floor where very good projects were rejected because people were afraid of growth and the impacts,” said Wunderman. “People are able to kick the tires of these things now and they recognize that there are benefits to having higher density and that they create an opportunity for livable places.”
In a speech following the panel discussion, Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, which is charged with implementing California’s landmark climate change bill, AB32, made clear that she fully grasps the land use, transportation, and climate change link. She noted that transportation is the number one cause of emissions in California, and alternative energy vehicles could not feasibly overcome this.
“We’re not going to do it all with the technology alone. We have absolutely got to incorporate reductions in our dependence on vehicles,” said Nichols. “Integrated land use and transportation planning is critical to reducing the need to drive and helping us to address climate change.”
During the panel, Madsen reiterated the link between creating vibrant urban communities and preserving the region’s open space. “We have to be thinking about land conservation, protection of our open space and creating vibrant, inviting places as really two sides of the same coin.”
The condition of the global financial markets might render discussion of development moot for the near future, but Madsen said economic times will change, and now is the time to put the policy framework in place.
Still, even with the committed support of many local groups and some state officials for sustainable development policies, the ambitious goals set out by the Smart Growth Bay Area plan will be hard to achieve without bold action from those present at the meeting, as Nichols acknowledged. “My call to action,” she said, “is for local communities to recognize that they have a leadership role to play here.”