Sprawling Beyond the Edges

The eras of outward sprawl in the Bay Area and what comes next

Urbanist Article May 1, 2001


In 1991, it was hard to imagine that threequarters of Bay Area employees would be using computers on a daily basis. However, that is precisely what has happened. According to a 2000 Bay Area Council survey, 74% of Bay Area employees use a computer at work or home. This fundamentally changed how we work and fueled the knowledge worker economy at all levels. The economic clusters at the center of the knowledge economy reside in the Bay Area. The Bay Area economy created another 760,000 jobs in the 1990s, over half in Silicon Valley.


Concurrent with unprecedented job growth, local communities have shed their responsibility to house workers. Communities have turned away hundreds of thousands from living within their borders to avoid the cost of providing services or to “protect their quality of life.” Silicon Valley created one house for every 5.5 jobs from July 1999 to June 2000, according to Joint Venture Silicon Valley. Coming out of the recession in 1995, the supply of housing in the Bay Area was already over 80,000 and is now nearly 160,000 housing units behind demand. This has exacerbated commute patterns as workers searched beyond the region for housing. According to MTC, there was a 47% increase in the number of commuters to Santa Clara County from surrounding areas, with over 100,000 daily commuters coming from the east.


In 1991, there had been three “waves” of Bay Area growth. The first wave was the Pre-World War II coastal communities. The second wave included the post-war suburbs. The third wave included areas up to the edge of the nine county region.

My 10-year prediction foresaw the third wave of growth as accelerating sprawl beyond the traditional nine county definition for the region. The information highway was going to reduce the time-distance relationship between home and office; corporate transportation demand management plans would reduce the number of days employees would have to commute, introduce flexible hours and remote work; and there would be a NIMBY movement resisting densification of our post-war suburbs.

The 10-year prediction envisioned the region spilling beyond the Second Wave post-war suburbs (such as Walnut Creek-Concord and Pleasanton-Livermore) into six spokes:

Santa Rosa-Petaluma
Walnut Creek-Concord
Morgan Hill-Gilroy

Census feedback has proven the prediction to be disturbingly accurate. In the past decade, Tracy has grown into a city of more than 50,000; Turlock has become a bedroom city of more than 50,000; and Silicon Valley commuters board Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) trains to Stockton. Stanislaus, Stockton, and Merced counties grew a combined 18.5%. Contra Costa county grew over 18%, rather than the 16% predicted by demographers. Brentwood in Contra Costa county more than tripled in population, growing from about 7,000 to 23,000. Windsor, in Sonoma County, grew 70% and Morgan Hill grew 40%. The third wave pattern is establishing itself. Unless we stop fiscally punishing communities for building housing and find ways to intensify our communities around transit, the Bay Area will continue to spill over into the surrounding valleys and we will forever lose our regional sense of place.


What will be the shape of the fourth wave of Bay Area growth? This question requires us to ask:

• How will we pay for the third wave?

• How will the Bay Area grow in a post-combustion engine era?

• How will our changing demographics shape our preferences for housing and neighborhoods?

Look for my review of regionalism in the 2000s in the May 2011 SPUR newsletter. spur logo

About the Authors: 

Bruce Race is a SPUR board member and an architect and urban planner

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