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Green Scene: Creating Sustainable Communities by Investing in Infill

Daisy Pistey-Lyhne

For too long, our society has been spending more resources than our investments generate in returns: we can see the results in our deflating economy as well as our changing climate. To get through these tough times and create better times ahead, we need to use our resources more efficiently now and invest in long-term sustainability.

It’s estimated that 73,000 more people will live in the North Bay by 2025. If new development continues to sprawl outward into remote areas, it will drain resources away from existing communities, thereby creating longer commutes, more traffic and more climate-changing greenhouse gases. We need ways to grow more sustainably, and we need them now.

Fortunately, our region is a fertile ground for smart solutions, as a new report by Greenbelt Alliance makes clear.

The opportunity of infill

In the report, called Smart Infill, Greenbelt Alliance lays out practical strategies for sustainable growth, including solutions that communities all over the Bay Area are using to provide homes people can afford, close to jobs, while reducing traffic and fighting climate change.

Those solutions involve encouraging infill development. Infill means accommodating growth within existing cities and towns instead of developing on open space. Infill development uses land more efficiently, transforming places like vacant lots, aging strip malls and office parks with new shops, homes and jobs.

Infill is more than a way to avoid turning orchards into subdivisions. It’s even more than a way to reduce driving and cut greenhouse gas emissions. It’s an opportunity to use growth to make our communities better. Past development patterns drained resources away from existing communities, but infill invests in the places where people already live. Done well, infill can rebuild abandoned areas, bring new life to old downtowns, and provide homes where people can meet their needs close by. It can create neighborhoods that are safe and pleasant to walk or bike in, where driving isn’t the only option.

Smart Infill is a tool to help local leaders encourage the kind of investment that makes communities better places to live. This can include strategies on several fronts.

Planning. The first step for many cities is to adopt an urban growth boundary to define the limits of growth. Novato, Napa, St. Helena and all Sonoma County cities except Cloverdale have urban growth boundaries. Napa and Marin counties have also adopted strong policies that preserve open space and farmland outside the cities from inappropriate development.

Another step is to update city general plans and zoning codes to remove barriers to infill and to instead encourage compact development with a mix of uses, like homes above shops. Specific plans can also focus investment in a given neighborhood—like Santa Rosa’s downtown.

Community. City leaders and developers need to hear ideas from residents about how to use new development to improve the community. For instance, in Santa Rosa, community participation resulted in many improvements to the plan for the downtown, including parks, homes for the diversity of the community and safe streets for bicycling.

Design. Good design is critical. Innovations like the WalkScore.com website illustrate the importance of designing neighborhoods around people rather than cars. In Cloverdale, the successful redesign of Cloverdale Boulevard meant reducing the number of lanes, adding parking and protruding sidewalk bulb-outs to protect pedestrians from traffic, and widening sidewalks to make room for planters, benches and even sidewalk sales. This transformed a central thoroughfare into an inviting place to walk, shop and dine.

SMART opportunity

Here in the North Bay, we have a tremendous new opportunity for smarter growth: the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train. The passage of Measure Q last November comes none too soon for the climate: Here in the North Bay, half of all our greenhouse gas emissions come from our tailpipes. We need to reduce our driving—and SMART can help.

Cities all along the train’s planned route are acting to focus new development around train stops and create more vibrant communities. Two cities have already made great strides to transform their downtowns.

Petaluma: Converting the waterfront

In 2003, Petaluma decided to allow mixed-use buildings, increase residential densities, improve streets and sidewalks, and reduce parking requirements to bring new life to its attractive downtown. New restaurants and shops have sprung up along the Petaluma River walkway, and new homes nearby provide local customers. The city also adopted policies to ensure that 15 percent of new homes are affordable, so more local workers can live in the community they serve.

San Rafael: Bringing people downtown

When San Rafael leaders set out to create a plan for their downtown, they put community engagement first, holding workshops with 250 participants and even including children in the discussion. The result helped create more homes downtown by increasing densities with transitions to surrounding neighborhoods. The plan also required that larger new developments make one out of every five homes (20 percent) affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. When asked in 2007, 86 percent of San Rafael residents said the revitalization effort had been good for their town.

There are many more examples like these—and many more still to come. For too long, development has been once-size-fits-all, covering irreplaceable farmland with tract housing and requiring people to drive long distances. With 73,000 more North Bay residents on the way and the patterns of the past going bankrupt, it’s time to invest in our existing cities and towns to create a more sustainable future. It’s time for Smart Infill.

Daisy Pistey-Lyhne is North Bay senior field representative for Greenbelt Alliance, which has been the Bay Area’s advocate for open spaces and vibrant places for over 50 years. To order or download a copy of Smart Infill, or to become a member of Greenbelt Alliance, visit www.greenbelt.org.

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