For decades, the people of the Bay Area have looked south in horror at the endless maze of clogged freeways and smog of Southern California and sworn we would take a different path.
Our actions do not match our words.
Despite near unanimity that we want a greener and smarter approach to growth, our day-to-day decisions are leading us down the path of Los Angeles. Every week seems to bring a new study confirming that suburban sprawl increases carbon emissions, adds congestion, increases home prices, reduces the quality of life, reduces wildlife diversity, decreases community satisfaction and even makes us fatter. Still, we close our eyes to reality.
The population of California was 19 million in 1970, now it is 38 million. We think if we reduce growth in our neighborhoods, we are preserving our way of life. The exact opposite is true: We are creating a carbon-spewing, auto-centric, smoggy sprawl.
Environmentally, the impact is already evident: an increasing number of smog alert days; palpably hotter summers; our main water source, the Sierra snowpack, eroding in front of our eyes; and wildfires engulfing forests and homes alike.
From a global perspective, the statistics are even grimmer. Species loss today exceeds that of the great dinosaur extinction. Human-induced greenhouse warming leads to a vicious cycle where warming feeds on itself, creating an ever-hotter world. Conservatives criticized former Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” over the claim that global warming may lead to significantly higher sea levels because the science in support of that was flimsy. Fair enough. Since then, many new studies support the rising sea level proposition. The Bay Area, with much of its commercial activity near sea level, has much to lose.
Why are we not making better land-use decisions? Mostly it is from NIMBY (not in my backyard) neighborhood opposition to each and every development project. Elected officials, sensing the tide, enable that opposition with new rules restricting density. Twenty neighbors around each project define land use throughout our communities to the detriment of us all. Transportation by walking, biking and mass transit becomes exponentially more difficult in suburban sprawl. On top of that, for those who wish to bike or walk, the infrastructure has becomes so focused on cars that roads are often unsafe.
The Bay Area consumes three times the world’s average of carbon-dioxide emissions per capita despite the mild climate – more than 50 percent comes from transportation. Land use and transportation are two sides of a coin. The automobile made the suburbs possible, and the suburbs have made the automobile essential.
Things are not all doom and gloom. In fact, with a little discipline we can have a healthier and more satisfying community and greatly reduce our carbon footprint. The changes involve redesigning land-use patterns to make more vibrant and interactive communities that are less auto-centric. This process is known as Smart Growth or New Urbanism. It means building denser living space near jobs and transportation, and integrating stores, jobs and housing more tightly. Proper urban planning encourages walking or biking to the store and our jobs. It encourages us to find cultural activities near our homes. It revives a sense of community and neighborhood alien to sprawl. People living in such integrated neighborhoods express higher satisfaction with their communities.
GreenTown Los Altos is a non-profit group advising Los Altos on ways to make the city more sustainable. (Disclosure: I am a volunteer for GreenTown.) GreenTown is scheduled to evaluate land-use and transportation issues next year and is recruiting volunteers.
Forrest Linebarger is CEO and chief designer at VOX Design Group Inc. in Mountain View. He has designed and built green homes for over a decade.