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Upside to a down economy: less pressure on open space

New report shows 77,300 fewer acres at risk for sprawl

By Alison Hawkes

One of the impacts of the economic recession over the last few years has been less interest in developing the Bay Area’s remaining open space.

A new report released on Tuesday by Greenbelt Alliance finds that a down real estate market, combined with public policies to restrict growth, has led to a 20 percent drop in the amount of Bay Area land “at risk” for development, compared to six years ago.

An estimated 77,300 acres is no longer in the immediate cross-hairs of developers and suburban planners, according to At Risk: The Bay Area Greenbelt 2012. And some 3 million acres total are now protected.

“This region has done an incredible job of permanently protecting open space,” said Jeremy Madsen, executive director of Greenbelt Alliance. “We’ve had huge successes and almost no place else in the country has any place like it.”

Madsen said he’s seen dramatic examples of urban growth boundaries in effect. Take Highway 580 through Livermore. On one side, you see the city of Livermore right up to the highway; on the other side are golden hills.

“That is protected land outside the city of Livermore. Voters put that in place,” Madsen said.

Urban growth boundaries are a cheaper alternative to outright acquisition of land for open space, but they do have drawbacks. Policies can expire and can be changed, especially when the economy picks up and real estate suddenly has more value. Greenbelt Alliance has identified 322,000 acres of land that could still become sprawl — the equivalent of 10 cities the geographic size of San Francisco.

Will a returning economic boom reverse the Bay Area’s open space gains?

“If the economy does pick up and we return to the old ways of sprawl, we have the potential to lose significant acres,” said Madsen. “You have to remain vigilant.”

As part of its report, the Greenbelt Alliance has released an interactive online map that showcases where land is zoned for development.

To see the interactive map: http://www.greenbelt.org/greenbelt-mapper/

 This article was originally published in Bay Nature.

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