A Dilemma for "Sustainable Regionalists"

Or, the real reason to strengthen regional governance

Urbanist Article May 1, 2000

In 1990-91, The Bay Vision 2020 Commission gathered about thirty leaders from many walks of life throughout the Bay Area to debate at length how regional economic and population growth could be managed more effectively and humanely. In 1992-93, a smaller caucus, known as the Bay Vision Action Group, which included some public officeholders, took the commission's conclusions and, after considerably more discussion, turned them into a regional governance bill which narrowly failed to be enacted into law by the state legislature. Both parts of the Bay Vision exercise understandably experienced some tension between two of their broad goals. The first goal was an institutional one: to create a decision-making council or body with Bay Area-wide authority, or at least influence, over planning and managing growth. The second goal was a change of policy: to move the physical development of the region into a more "sustainable", less car- and freeway-dependent path.

The two agendas are related, of course: the fractionated particularism of the Bay Area's 100+ cities, innumerable special districts, and many independent transportation operators was seen as a primary shield for sprawl, offering dozens of safe-havens for the beneficiaries of outward dispersion and of growth on the geographical margins. Bay Vision believed that a region-wide body, even with initially weak powers, was required to manage continuing population and economic growth and to preserve open space and environmental values.

But the thought lurked, "What if a new, scrupulously balanced and democratic regional council turns out to be dominated by real estate developers and the same social forces that created the present situation in the first place, giving fresh impetus and a broader mandate to sprawl?"

The problem of institutional form versus policy content remains a permanent dilemma. But I suggest that the "environmental", city-centered physical growth reforms of the region are the real substantive goal that will matter in the daily life of the population. Strengthening region-wide governance has an instrumental relationship to that agenda. This does not necessarily make achieving a regional planning authority any less important; a unified regional forum may well be a strict sine qua non for a turn toward sustainability. But it does mean that primacy goes not to the form of political and administrative organization, but rather to making real progress on issues like the housing shortage, auto-dependency and transportation congestion, sprawl, growth on the geographic margins, and the prodigal energy consumption of our auto-reliant way of life.

Others looked upon the matter otherwise. Bay Vision Commission Chair Michael Heyman spoke eloquently of an enrichment of regional life through simply having a Bay Area-wide political forum for the raising and airing of issues, without attempting to predetermine outcomes. But I believe that tremendous gains are available to the Bay Area, in the daily, hour-by-hour quality of life of its people, if it can use ongoing growth to introduce carefully thought out new forms of urban life aiming at greater efficiency and sustainability. We have a lot to work with: great wealth by world standards and a thriving economy, a generous geographic scale and the stunning physical beauty of our setting. We can wring out of the business of living in the city a great deal of the wasted time, wasted energy use, personal tension and monetary cost with which badly-organized metropolitan life now taxes the population.

There are various ways of doing this. Peter Calthorpe and other New Urbanists have proposed persuasive, but I think essentially suburban, visions. Working only with new growth and leaving existing settlements largely as they are now, we can make a bigger forward leap. We should put new buildings, as the economy generates them, into as many as a hundred transit-oriented communities of sharply intensified density. In such centers around the Bay, most daily destinations, such as the supermarket, Little League field and post office, would be nearby, and reached by foot. Many further automobile trips would be eliminated because these communities would be linked to each other by high quality transit, the centers having aggregated enough people to support frequent and excellent service.

On the personal scale, hours of driving (and angry inching in traffic), hours of parking (and vexed hunting for parking), tons of air pollutants, and thousands of dollars a year in car costs can be eliminated. We certainly have architects who can give us density without a sense of crowding, and greater proximity to one another without high noise levels.

It is perhaps curious to go from advocacy based on such daily, "bread and butter" arguments for increased convenience in our personal lives to relatively transcendental reasons to change. But, in fact, there are important long-range justifications for shifting toward sustainability. On the level of national leadership, we can help work out how over a couple of decades a thriving American metropolitan region can lower gluttonous energy consumption. We can move, as we did in the 1970s, back to levels of fossil fuel use which will make responding to the looming issue of climate change far more manageable than if we continue to emit carbon at the world's highest rates, largely through incessant driving.

Similarly, at the world-historical scale, we can give the exploding cities of the urbanizing Third World, especially in Asia, a counter-example to the disastrous, impossible lesson which they otherwise take from the West: that the modern, successful way of life can be based only on the auto industry, the freeway and the single occupancy vehicle.

The moral of the story: let's strengthen regional governance, not as an end in itself but quite explicitly as a instrument which will help us change the path of our growth away from sprawl, and toward a more livable and sustainable layout of our metropolitan city.SPUR logo


About the Authors: 

Peter Lydon has lived in Berkeley since retiring from the United States Foreign Service. He is an associate at the University of California's Institute for Governmental Studies (IGS). In the early 1990s, he wrote an extended paper for IGS, called "San Francisco's Bay Vision 2020 Commission: A Civic Initiative for Change."

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