Why smart growth?

SF Public Press
 — Jun 14 2012 - 5:26pm

Sprawl is commonplace in the Bay Area — from places like Antioch and Brentwood on the outskirts of Contra Costa County to parts of Santa Clara and Sonoma counties. 

The pattern emerges from an all-too-familiar suburban formula that for decades earned developers high profits: perfectly manicured lawns, streets that meander around small neighborhood parks and cul-de-sacs at the end of nearly every block. Mixed use is forbidden — businesses are clustered into shopping malls a car trip away.

Though the Bay Area started out on a European-style city grid in the era of the horse and buggy, the neighborhoods developed after World War II, after the rise of the automobile industry and interstate highway system, became the American dream.

Mainstream thinking has changed radically. Planners now say that 20th century pattern is the opposite of what the Bay Area needs to remain an attractive place to live and work.

“Think about it — the most desirable places in the Bay Area now were built before World War II, before the automobile, places like Rockridge in Oakland and downtown San Francisco,” said Egon Terplan, planning director at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

“The question becomes: Are you going to live in a community where you can walk around and get some stuff for your daily life in your neighborhood?” Terplan said. “Can you hop on a bus or hop on a train and get to your job or get to a medical appointment or get to school?”

Plan Bay Area attempts to increase urban density in cities throughout the region by establishing “priority development areas.”  Cities can concentrate “infill” development on vacant or under-used city lots in neighborhoods well served by transit. The idea is to zone roughly 80 percent of the region’s new housing in new or existing downtowns.

The grand statewide goal, through two state laws, Assembly Bill 32 and Senate Bill 375, is to develop regional greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for motorists by building enough housing for people at all income levels and concentrating new housing and jobs near transportation hubs, allowing residents to live closer to where they work, thus shortening their driving time.

One organization that has argued for years for such a strategy, the San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance, says the need for more housing is urgent: “If new development continues to sprawl outward on the urban edge, it will drain resources from existing cities and create longer commutes, more traffic and more climate-changing greenhouse gases. … This kind of development will not meet the need for more affordable homes closer to jobs."

Read full coverage of Bay Area smart growth in the San Francisco Public Press Summer 2012 print edition, on sale at retail outlets around San Francisco and online.