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California Slows to Catch Its Breath

Josh Stephens on
Apr 26, 2012

Of California's roughly 37 million people, not a single one of them remembers a time when the state was not growing at a seemingly out-of-control pace. With the exception of the Depression and World War II years, our state has tripped over itself to build homes, roads, and entire cities nearly from scratch. We bulldozed one patch of desert, farmland, or chaparral only to find the surveyors marking up the next plot. It's been exhilarating, but also exhausting. 

And, according to analysis of the latest Census data, it may be coming to an end. 

In "Generational Projections of the California Population By Nativity and Year of Immigrant Arrival," a USC team led by professors John Pitkin and Dowell Myers, project that the state will henceforth grow scarcely faster than your money market account does: about 1% per year. In the face of decreasing rates of immigration and birth, the report predicts growth of less than 10% per decade, inching up to 44 million people by 2028. That's as opposed to 26% growth in the 1980s and 14% growth in the 1990s.

To put this shift in perspective, as recently as 2007, the state Department of Finance predicted that California would reach 50 million people by 2032. The new numbers push that date back to 2046.  

As could be expected, the proportion of elderly people in the state is expected to rise. But with a lower birthrate, there will come a time when there is a greater proportion of working-age adults as well. That's good for the tax base, which will need to support services for all of those seniors. 

The report identifies one profound cultural shift: in the coming decades, the majority of Californians will be native-born, starting at 53% in 2010 and rising from there. Perhaps this will, once and for all, put a stop the immortal California question, "you mean you're actually from here?" 

Mind you, 10% per decade with a base of 37 million is still a lot of people. The USC team contends, though, that this pace will give planners a chance to actually plan rather that simply keep up. 

That's good news for infrastructure and preservation of open space. But, in a roundabout way, could it be bad news for smart growth? 

Even though current strategies such as the smart growth plans of SB 375 are designed to reduce the impacts of growth--on a per capita basis--they still anticipate and, indeed, rely on the occurrence of growth. The Sustainable Communities Strategies do not, contrary to the claims of critics, call for forced marches from the suburbs to center cities. Rather, they assume that urban housing will fulfill a predicted demand for more housing overall. But, with fewer Californians, that's fewer people to inhabit urban infill projects and fewer people to ride public transit. 

A transformation of California's urban landscape may, therefore, happen more slowly too. In some places, planning may take the form of retrofitting and updating rather than expanding. 

This isn't to say that California is going to grind to a halt or become Japan, where the population is predicted to plummet in the coming decades. At best, it means that we may, finally, get to enjoy that mellow, laid-back lifestyle that we all came here for in the first place. 

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