Before the hype about “California Forever,” Southeastern Solano County may not have been top of mind for many Californians. But recent headlines are drawing more attention to this remote and agrarian region. Initial information about this billionaire funded “city of the future” touts appealing phrases like walkable neighborhoods and environment stewardship in their vague plans, but as initial reactions show, this proposal looks more to the past than the future.
The initial California Forever website actually touts its backward-looking thinking. The website mentions that the project is based on “Regional Plan 1970-1990” and “Future Development of the San Francisco Bay Area, 1960-2020.” These plans were firmly rooted in the prevailing thought that rather than invest in renewing and evolving our current cities’ infrastructure for the modern age, we should build new cities on the farmland, wetlands, open spaces, and hillsides surrounding our region.
This rhetoric is all too familiar. Greenbelt Alliance was founded 65 years ago by local community activists sounding the alarm that this model is damaging to communities and ecosystems alike, spurring the need to protect our region’s natural lands and stop disruptive development like condos on the Marin Headlands.
Decades later, this group of Silicon Valley investors is looking to dust off this model and double down on the mistakes of the past. “California Forever” claims its utopic vision is anti-sprawl, but its proposal is the very definition of sprawl.
A generation ago, we turned our back on the amazing older cities and urban areas in the Bay Area. We reduced our investment in revitalizing our existing urban core to build a ring of suburbs, driving up housing prices near jobs and transit, exacerbating dependence on cars, and reducing time for recreation and family. This proposal just replicates that model. Solano County is already home to some of the most affordable and diverse cities in our region. Forward thinking new investments could benefit these existing cities, like Fairfield, Vallejo and Suisun, rather than creating an isolated enclave of new residents.
The Bay Area urgently needs more housing, which is why Greenbelt Alliance actively supports policies, legislation, and individual projects that will accelerate that growth within our many existing cities and towns. And Bay Area residents desire vibrant, walkable communities close to jobs and convenient transit. But sprinkling buzzwords in over a development proposal does nothing to make it convenient and walkable. With this remote location and no close connections to any regional transit, significant land in this new city will need to be dedicated to parking those cars and they will continue to clog local and regional freeways, despite what the lovely AI renderings from the developer show.
Additionally, Southeastern Solano County is surrounded by Suisun Bay and the Sacramento River Delta, a critical habitat and source of water for people and agriculture, all of which are under extreme threat due to sea level rise. The proposed development would only exacerbate these threats. These existing ranchlands have provided livelihoods to generations of Solano County farmers and water absorption benefits in extreme storm events. According to Bay Area Greenprint, 20% of these lands are in an inundation zone, where natural and working lands play a critical role in reducing the intensity of flood events and recharging the aquifer—an increasingly important role in the cycle of droughts and flooding exacerbated by climate change.
Moreover, the lands proposed for development are currently providing carbon storage benefits crucial for curbing climate change risks: avoiding disturbance of the lands is equivalent to over 230k cars per year, according to a Bay Area Greenprint report.
There is nothing “innovative” about purchasing land that is priced for farm and ranch uses. Getting the area rezoned for housing and putting up subdivisions—Californian developers and investors have made millions of dollars doing this for decades.
Greenbelt Alliance believes California, the Bay Area, and Solano County can have a bright future. To do that, we need a genuinely forward-thinking pattern of development where we honor the myriad uses and benefits of the land outside our cities. We must come together as a region to value our unique natural assets, incredible weather, strong economy, and diverse population by building up our own backyards and collectively protecting the natural resources surrounding us.
Amanda Brown-Stevens is the Executive Director of Greenbelt Alliance. Visit our Solano County campaign website at greenbelt.org/blog/protectsolano.