Judy Corbett is executive director of the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit organization whose members include elected officials, and city and county staff members. The commission provides forums and technical assistance to assist local agencies in a variety of subject areas. In 1991, the commission, working with architects and planners, produced the Ahwahnee Principles for community and regional planning. The Ahwahnee Principles provide an alternative to what the authors see as decades of unnecessarily segregated land uses, inefficient development patterns, lack of public gathering spaces, and over-dependence on the automobile. Following adoption of the Ahwahnee Principles, the commission formed the Center for Livable Communities, which assists local public officials with land use and transportation planning.
CP&DR What are your priorities for the year?
Corbett: The livable communities concept remains high on the agenda. The major type of development is still sprawl and big boxes and strip development. There are still many obstacles to having resource-efficient development.
The other issue is energy. … There is just enormous potential at the local level to address these issues.
CP&DR: What sort of things can local governments do regarding the energy situation?
Corbett: Everything from mobilizing building departments to require more energy-efficient buildings, solar panels, and photovoltaic systems where appropriate. Planners should be requiring narrower streets with trees, which lower the ambient air temperature by up to 10 degrees. We need to retrofit buildings. A welfare-to-work program to insulate homes gets at the social equity aspects of this.
CP&DR: What is happening at the state Capitol these days that you are working on?
Corbett: We're right in the middle of the energy stuff and we see so much potential for local government to address this stuff. We created something called the Community Energy Authority in 1983, and a lot of our members are interested in that again.
They are in such a crisis mode [at the Capitol] that nobody really has time to sit back and think about what they are doing. They ask us for advice, but they needed it yesterday.
We are working on a program with the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities and school districts to get photovoltaic cells on rooftops of public buildings. … We just need the funds to put together the package.
CP&DR: Getting back to "livable communities." You mentioned that there are many obstacles. What are they and what can you do about them?
Corbett: It is primarily local government that is standing in the way, even though they like the ideas in theory. Their ordinances require streets that are too wide and densities that are too low.
Most developers want to speed through the process as quickly as possible and the minute they propose something different and they meet any resistance, they revert to the old way of doing things — and there you go, back to square one.
There is still this tremendous resistance to neighborhood parks, pocket parks, which is amazing. You need them for a stronger sense of community, yet a lot of cities feel like it's better to just provide one large park.
CP&DR: How do you get past the obstacles?
Corbett: We're working right now with a group in Fresno called the Growth Alternatives Alliance that produced the "Landscape of Choice." We're working with that group to scout around the country, find ordinances and policies that have already been enacted that encourage livable communities. We are giving our members sample ordinances that are working elsewhere.
CP&DR: Fresno has a reputation for low-density, suburban sprawl. Why would a group like the Growth Alternatives Alliance exist in Fresno?
Corbett: The Packard Foundation was willing to fund it, number one. And number two, there is this incredible coalition where you have got the building industry and the environmentalists working together. That's a pretty rare situation. And they have done the groundwork of getting the policies of the Landscape of Choice already adopted.
It's amazing that it's happening in Fresno because in the earlier years I went down there and gave so many talks on livable communities, and I didn't think anyone heard me. And, voila, they rise to the top of the heap in terms of actually moving ahead on this stuff.
CP&DR: You returned to the Ahwahnee Hotel in March for the 10th anniversary of the Ahwahnee Principles. What was that like?
Corbett: What we did was collect a lot of information from all of the people who had been there 10 years earlier, and see all of the accomplishments we have made. Many people who are in positions to influence local and state policy were there.
CP&DR: Have you made progress?
Corbett: No question about it. It's pretty amazing. We've gone further than we ever thought we would.
Ten years ago, you only spent money on things that were "essential." You didn't spend money on improving your community. We had a woman there from Placerville who said she hadn't had any successes. Then she showed us pictures of all they have done with their parks and their restroom in downtown. It was all just beautifully done.
It feels like we have rolled the ball up the hill. … We have convinced the banks that it is feasible. I think there is more acceptance in communities of mixed-use development. Older people and younger people are asking for this type of development. There really needs to be a market for it.
CP&DR: Where do you think we're gonna be in another 10 years?
Corbett: I think we're going to make so much progress in the next 10 years. That's my optimistic side. Every day, I see a new constituency getting on board with this concept. And the newest constituency that is just suddenly beginning to pop up and embrace this is the health community because our land use patterns have induced an unhealthy lifestyle, and this is just spreading across the country. … Planners can influence public health as much as doctors. They can affect air pollution, water pollution, the obesity rate that we are seeing in kids, who have to be driven everywhere.
CP&DR: Is there one town you go to where you think, this is the way it ought to be done?
Corbett: Well, I've been involved in the City of Davis's politics for ages. It's one of the best communities in the Valley. There are greenbelts throughout the city. Strip development has not been allowed, and the densities are high enough. It's a wonderful place to live.
If I were to choose one city in Southern California, it would be Pasadena. They have done everything so well.
CP&DR Managing Editor Paul Shigley interviewed Judy Corbett at her office in Sacramento.