When it comes to development and preservation, Bay Area communities tend to be myopic and provincial. Some crave growth, others abhor it — and, as often as not, their local desires do not necessarily reflect the best interest of the region, which is to guide growth into areas where it has the least detrimental effect on natural resources and makes the best use of existing job centers and transportation systems.
“Regionalism” is something elected officials and other community leaders talk about at seminars and editorial board meetings. But the reality of Bay Area politics is that anti-growth factions often have a lot of clout in the inner areas that could handle more growth, and pro-development forces often call the shots in the outer areas where growth means paving over farmland and open space.
The case for a regional approach to land use has rarely been spelled out so eloquently as in a new report, “Golden Lands, Golden Opportunity,” produced by the Greenbelt Alliance and the Bay Area Open Space Council. This two-year study, which incorporated input from a wide breadth of more than 100 government and nonprofit entities, carefully cataloged the threats to natural resources in the nine-county region. As the report noted, plants and animals are “losing the places they need to survive.” Children are losing outdoor options. “And,” it added, “climate change is raising the stakes.”
This was not in any way an anti-growth manifesto. It acknowledged that an estimated 1 million more people will “call the region home” by 2020. The report was not just about preserving habitat for wildlife — it was about maintaining quality of life for people.
“A number that I found was surprising was the 62 percent of Bay Area kids under the age of 15 who don’t have a park within walking distance of their home,” said Elizabeth Stampe, communications director for the Greenbelt Alliance. “It’s actually worse in lower-income areas — that (62 percent) is just the average.”
One of the striking features of the report is its optimistic tone. Many longtime residents of the region, who have seen their communities paved and development encroach on erstwhile tree-studded hills and flat cropland, may wonder if it’s too late.
In a sense, the down economy could help create an opening for discussions of regionalism.
“There really is a great deal of hope,” said Bettina Ring, director of the Bay Area Open Space Council. “I think it is a great opportunity to step back and say: ‘What do we need to look at first? There’s not quite as much development pressure, here is an opportunity to seize the moment.’ ”
The timing of the report is perfect in other ways. The drought is raising awareness of the value of watersheds. The Slow Food movement is elevating interest in the need to preserve agriculture within the region. Moreover, the threat of an accelerating climate change is forcing policymakers to contemplate dramatic ecological changes in the region. The Bay Area is emerging as a global leader in both advancing commercial development of green technologies and in embracing public policies that reduce carbon footprints.
The quality and variety of the open space in this region is not just a weekend luxury for the people who live and visit here.
“It’s an integral part of the economy,” Stampe said. “What would we have if we didn’t have this farmland, and the hills, and the coast? It wouldn’t be the same at all.”
Of course, regionalism can be like a New Year’s resolution: espoused with conviction, then lost in the day-to-day return to bad habits. Last fall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation (SB375) by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to provide incentives for local governments to work together to reduce carbon emissions in their land-use planning.
The prescriptions in the report are many: linking trails, maintaining parks, protecting and connecting habitats, acquiring open space, encouraging “infill” growth that has less impact on air, water and other natural resources. Our politicians always talk about “smart growth,” but still this region lost nearly 200,000 acres of agricultural land between 1984 and 2006. Perhaps the wave of foreclosures in some of those hot, dry subdivisions on land that once held crops will finally cement the message that sprawl is not just bad aesthetics. It’s bad economics.
The timing should be right for a regional strategy to preserve our natural resources — and the quality of life that makes this such a special place.