With due appreciation to the organizers and sponsors of this week’s California APA conference, there’s been a lot of food to keep over 1,500 planners sustained and energized this week. At this morning’s session, there was also a lot of nibbling coming out of Sacramento.
As every planner knows, the state’s ability to influence local land use is limited and usually indirect – for better or worse. State policy has traditionally been limited to nibbling around the edges, with the occasional law, and some polite suggestions. The financial incentives that could be most powerful are neutered because, well, they depend on finances.
And yet, Gov. Jerry Brown and many other officials have statewide concerns and, in some cases, holistic visions for what the state’s cities should look like. The task of refining those goals and coming up with policies, strategies, and polite suggestions falls largely to the Strategic Growth Council.
This morning SGC staffer Suzanne Hague discussed a comprehensive strategy called Sustainable, Equitable Communities. The SGC is drafting it now and hopes to adopt it sometime next year. It includes a range of tasty-sounding morsels designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (per AB 32) and provide a range of co-benefits. Depending how cities respond, these ideas may or may not ever make it out of the kitchen.
Here are a few highlights, including some I hadn’t heard before:
  • Regional transit-oriented development funds. The Bay Area has done it with the TOAH program. Other MPOs can follow.
  • Rebates for carbon-friendly housing. If they do it for Teslas, why not for solar panels?
  • Various tax-increment financing schemes, including one that encompasses multiple TOD areas so as to share wealth.
  • Urban growth boundaries, reduced parking requirements, and tax abatements in distressed area.
On the transportation tip, Hague mentioned a few well known ideas: subsidized transit passes; bike sharing and car sharing; congestion pricing (which she appealingly recast as “cordon pricing”). She touted the state’s current pilot project to test demand-based taxation that could replace the gas tax: the less you drive, the less you pay (whether you drive a Tesla or a Hummer).
If you put Hague’s 30 or so bullet points together and make them happen, you’ll either get a regulatory monstrosity or, perhaps, an walkable, equitable, sustainable urban paradise.
In the question-and-answer period, we learned a few reasons why neither scenario may come to pass, including the use of ballot measures to approve leapfrog development, regional transportation plans and taxation measures that have their own agendas, and the perennial shortage of funds to create regulations and do planning work.
Hague herself volunteered one of the least talked-about but perhaps most profound impediments to infill living (as opposed to infill development). As it turns out, reduction of GHGs may depend on ABCs.
No matter how many high-density, low-parking, mixed-use, yoga-adjacent, dog-friendly units California developers can crank out, none of these developments does a thing to improve public education in center cities. As long as parents, rightly or wrongly, fear for their children’s’ minds and safety, they will always be tempted to flee the suburbs eventually.
California’s education tragedy, above all challenges, may be the reason why cities are so family-unfriendly (despite what grumps like Joel Kotkin may claim). So, while California’s planners are learning, and eating, their fill this week, we should remember that the success of their cities may in fact depend on what California’s children learn every day.