Don't Grow Dumb, California

It is not growth that California needs to fear, but "dumb growth" where there is insufficient planning and incentives for families, businesses and communities to make "smart" choices about where to locate.

April 8, 2002, 12:00 AM PDT

By Jeff Lambert, AICP

Jeff LambertCalifornia growth is inevitable. The question facing us is not whether, or by how much we will grow, but whether we will grow "smart" or grow "dumb." Our state is growing faster than any other in the nation. From 1990 to 2000, California's population increased nearly 14% - from 29.8 to 33.9 million. That rapid growth is expected to continue into the foreseeable future: 42.7 million people will call California home in 2015, increasing the state's population by 26% from 2000. We're big and getting bigger fast.

Whether this inevitable growth provides more benefits than drawbacks depends on how we plan to accommodate that growth. Population growth generates increases in jobs, personal incomes, local tax revenues and property values, and can also spur revitalization of blighted areas and allow for greater productivity. But rapid unplanned population growth can also result in a loss of open space and farmland, strains on infrastructure and resources, unbearable traffic congestion, greater air and water pollution, a "cookie-cutter" approach to building new subdivisions, and that ugly side effect of unplanned growth: sprawl.

It is not growth that California needs to fear, but "dumb growth" where there is insufficient planning and/or incentives for families, businesses and communities to make "smart" choices about where to locate.

Unfortunately, the State's $12 to $14 billion revenue shortfall will make it difficult to pass any new state-mandated program or innovative planning approaches. Nevertheless, there are areas where state government can make a difference. California must address planning decisions for its future before it's too late.

Are we growing our homeless population?
Growing "smart" means we must make housing a state priority. California can't keep talking about the housing crisis without dealing with the problem head-on. California must reform its overly-detailed housing element law, and develop incentives to ensure every city and county complies with that law, and in exchange go after those jurisdictions that refuse to comply. One way to get the attention of communities that simply don't want housing: stop all development, including housing, commercial development and remodels, until they have an adequate housing element.

Water: the next crisis
Growing "smart" means finding adequate water resources before it becomes California's next major crisis. We are faced with providing an adequate water supply for our fast-growing businesses and families. California must link water resources and land use decisions. We should not be approving new development without reliable, sustainable and high quality sources of water. Careful long-range planning, finding new sources of reliable, quality water supplies, and being smarter in how we use the water we have are as critical as keeping the lights on.

Get creative in finding new answers to old problems
Growing "smart" means a commitment to creative planning solutions. Someone has to take the plunge to fix what is admitted by all to be a broken state, regional and local fiscal relationship. The state needs to provide incentives to local governments to plan and grow cooperatively, and enact laws that guarantee that cities and counties will retain stable revenue sources. At the same time, the state should encourage local governments to share resources derived from an entire region, such as requiring regional sales tax sharing agreements.

Practice what you preach
Growing "smart" means working together at the state and local level for a statewide vision of "smart growth." Public agencies should set a good example. Let's require both state agencies and local governments to incorporate state smart planning principles into their planning, and use smart growth principles to govern state infrastructure project funding.

We must guide how California grows before it is too late. We don't want to wake up 20 or 100 years from now screaming, "If only we'd preserved that habitat and agricultural land, saved that open space, and developed walkable, beautiful communities where businesses want to locate and people want to live - if only we'd planned!"

Let's grow "smart" California.


Jeff Lambert is the President of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association, a nonprofit, public interest and research organization representing over 5,000 practicing planners, elected and appointed officials, and concerned citizens involved with urban and rural planning issues in California. He is also the director of Planning and Building Services for the City of Santa Clarita, California.

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