By Jessica Bispels, Assistant Planner

As the country’s population continues to grow, it should be no surprise that the United States is becoming more and more urban. Cities across the country are preparing for that growth by utilizing innovative methods that are particular to their identity. What does that mean for the cities in a primarily agricultural area like the Central Valley of California? Agriculture has been a fundamental property of the cultural identity of the Valley for decades, yet a growing population is changing the face of the valley’s economy. With increasing urban development in metropolitan areas combined with a continual population growth, the Valley’s economy is shifting away from being exclusively agricultural.

This raises questions regarding the future of the Central Valley. What are the social, economic, and cultural implications for this kind of growth? What are the potential problems that need to be solved to accommodate for this rapid growth, while still maintaining the area’s distinctive identity? Urban Planners of the Central Valley are asking these questions, and their role is changing along with the changing face of the Central Valley. Because of this, the role of the urban planner is increasingly indispensable. Planners will be working to help shape the Central Valley’s future, from how it looks, drives, functions, grows, feels, and everything in between. We need to look at the current state of the Central Valley in terms of density, economics, and transportation, and begin to understand how the valley will need to adapt in order to incentivize a strong, thriving, welcoming, and prominent area. By increasing population density, providing economic incentives, and decreasing the dependency on the automobile, the Central Valley can realize its full potential and become an attractive option for potential migrants.

An example of mixed use, with stores on the first floor and residences on the top floor.

Making Sense of the Density Question

It’s not a question of if the cities of the Central Valley will grow, but how. It’s the age-old question of development: do we grow out, or up? The previous trend in the valley was to annex new land into the city and develop in this unchartered territory. This in turn causes the surface area of the city to increase as the population density decreases. With this sprawl, the cities continue to be dependent on the automobile as their main form of transportation, bestowing harmful pollutants like hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide into an already dangerously polluted air supply whilst simultaneously decreasing the walkability of the city. Cities in the Central Valley will need to strategize ways to develop in a sustainable fashion that increases the population density of the city while maintaining the quality of life of its residents. This is not an easy task, nor is it impossible.

Planners can help facilitate this change by helping cities implement policies that will help them grow sustainably. Putting restrictions on annexations of cities will both protect the surrounding agricultural land and incentivize developers to utilize infill sites to their fullest potential. If they shy away from the costs of demolishing and beginning anew, they can get creative with adaptive reuse projects that involve transforming an existing building into something new, which reinvents its function while keeping the old structure. Portland, Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundary makes sure there is a clear distinction between what is and is not the city, pushing for the city itself to find innovative ways to grow without growing out. Granted, the Central Valley is not expected to grow as quickly or rapidly as Portland, but small cities in the area can look at and learn from the strategies of other cities and decide which they will implement to induce sustainable growth. In all, a wholistic approach needs to be utilized when cities welcome new development into their borders.

If You Incentivize It, They Will Come

The discussion of growth brings into question the next thought Central Valley resident might ponder: What kind of growth will we have? What will be the reasons that people come into the Central Valley? Since 1970, over half (59%) of the Valley’s growth has been due to migration. Since the beginning of the millennium, migration accounts for two-thirds of population growth in the Valley. So, what are they coming for? The Public Policy Institute of California says it’s for jobs, housing, and family. The Institute also observed how migration is changing the socioeconomic profile, and if the valley is losing its best-educated adults and most promising high school graduates to other parts of California and the United States. The Central Valley needs to find incentives for its best educated adults to stay here, and even more importantly attract and welcome the creative class to help bolster the economy.

There are many different strategies to help cities attract migrants and grow, but oftentimes the best strategies involve investing in particular economic sectors. For example, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania worked hard to invest in the education and medical sector (“meds & eds”) after the tumultuous decline of the steel industry and subsequently the economy in the 1960s. This investment helped transform the economy and the housing market, and even shielded them from many of the symptoms of the Great Recession in 2008. As cities in the Central Valley are changing the face of the agricultural and gas economy, it’s imperative that they find ways to attract particular sectors, thus having an influence in the way they grow. The agricultural and gas economy is currently inefficient for continued growth and employment opportunities.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. The university is just one of many institutions of higher education in Pittsburgh, helping to bolster its economy.

Urban Travel, Rethought

Since the 1920s, Americans have been infatuated with the automobile. Having your own car means you have the freedom to travel where you want, and when you want. However, this comes at a price. Transportation is the top producer of greenhouse gas emissions, with 83% of those emissions coming from cars and trucks. The federal gas tax, designed as mechanism for drivers to pay for the upkeep of roads they use, hasn’t been adjusted in two decades. Not adjusting the tax for inflation has reduced the tax’s value from 18.4 cents to 11 cents. In 2013, gas taxes, tolls, and motor vehicle fees covered just 41.4 percent of state and local road spending. The rest of the funding needs to come from other sources such as general tax revenue and issuing municipal bonds. California just recently tried to solve this problem by increasing the gas tax at the end of 2017, but it’s still not enough. Sixty-five (65) percent of the new tax money is used to repair the already damaged roads. The road & highway system is not self-sustaining, forcing the general public, many of whom might not even be drivers, to pick up the leftover tab.

Aside from the exorbitant cost of cars and the roads they drive on, designing a city road around the car creates a less walkable, more dangerous, and outmoded street system. There hasn’t been any organizing principle within cities themselves that creates roadways that welcome more than just the car. Former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan describes it well in her book, Streetfight:

“Let’s look at a one-way street with four twelve-foot lanes. It’s two parking lanes on each side, along the curb. The two center lanes are dedicated for moving vehicles. A twelve-foot lane is a standard width on many highway lanes, as laid out in the federal guideline meant to create highway lanes able to accommodate the widest semis safely. A 2015 Toyota Camry is only about six feet wide, and the vast majority of trucks and commercial vehicles are less than eight and a half feet across. When you multiply the up to fix feet of excess lateral space built into every traffic lane, you can begin to see how this street is grossly overbuilt.”

Cities in the Central Valley were designed with the understanding that the car was going to be the main way to get around the city, and because of that, it is extremely difficult to get around the cities without owning a car. Designing cities in a way that not only encourages but demands ownership of the car creates more sprawl, pollutes the air, and doesn’t allow for a sense of community on the streets. Also taking into consideration that cars sit idle 92% of the time means that we are building our cities and communities around something that Morgan Stanley called the world’s most underutilized asset. Let’s reconsider transportation in our cities. Let’s consider ride share options like Uber and Lyft, see where bicycle lanes can be added to our grossly overbuilt roads, and use the bus as a viable mode of transportation. Most importantly, let’s build cities having the understanding in mind that we will want to walk throughout them, not just drive.

An example of a creative ride share program: Seattle to Portland, on a school bus.

Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is known for being the most bicycle-friendly city with over a million people in the world.

The People’s Place

This article has sought to promote the indispensability of the Urban Planner and the future of the profession. It has thus far failed to discuss the most important part of the Planning Profession, the variable that is essential to the success of any planning project: the people. In essence, the role of the Planner exists purely to help the citizens of a particular area create a community that serves, represents, and invigorates them. This is no different in the Central Valley, as citizen engagement will guide the planners toward projects and policies that are representative of the people they hope to adequately serve. Cohesive solutions to difficult problems involve just that, cohesion. Cohesion of the multitude of different backgrounds, stakes, motives, ideas, fears, loves, and hates will ensure a well-thought-out, comprehensive solution to our most critical problems. This is no easy feat, as more problem solvers can ironically create more problems. But Planners exist to ease these tensions and secure the progression of the communities they represent. It is the only way to ensure that we actualize a community of, by, and for the people.

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