The view from the trenches of local government

Dan Marks, Director of Planning and Dev...
Looking ahead, the fundamental question for a land use planner is: how do we
accommodate growth and build sustainable plac...
•   Many underutilized sites along major commercial boulevards are
       developed at higher densities.
   •   Older down...
need to significantly intensify existing developed areas served by public transit
and near jobs.

Unfortunately, despite, ...
although some neighborhoods will experience greater impacts than others as
neighborhood edges are transformed.

While the ...
government funding is sales tax, and the poor land use decisions that
       often result from the need to maximize fiscal...
Everyone was willing to accept some increased density and some increase in
height to achieve those densities. The disagree...
Carrots and Sticks (mostly carrots)

We need to determine what carrots and sticks will move this process forward.
Some for...
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EcoCity 7: Marks, dan


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Dan Marks: Thinking globally, acting locally? view from trenches of local government.

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EcoCity 7: Marks, dan

  1. 1. THINKING GLOBALLY, ACTING LOCALLY? The view from the trenches of local government Dan Marks, Director of Planning and Development City of Berkeley April 25, 2008 My job is in the trenches: taking the vision of a sustainable city and applying it in my typical small town of 100,000 people, the City of Berkeley. It is clear from the many presentations at this conference that in the adage “think globally, act locally” the “thinking globally” part is alive and well. But from where I sit, the acting locally part – at least in regard to land use – is still a work in progress. If we are to achieve our goal to reduce our impacts on the planet and make our cities more sustainable, we have a lot of work to do, and not just with the general public. Many of those who believe passionately in the cause of sustainability have not yet come to terms with the implications it has for changes in their neighborhoods and cities. While I work for the City of Berkeley, my point of view is my own, based on 25 years of working as a city and regional planner, 15 years in local government. THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA As much as some people in Berkeley would like to think of it as the People’s Republic of Berkeley, independent not only from the Bay Area but from some of the policies of the United States, as an economic and physical entity, the lines that separate Berkeley from our neighbors are only political. More than half the people living in Berkeley commute elsewhere to jobs, and more than half of the people that work in Berkeley come from elsewhere. Some of our food comes from surrounding counties and the Central Valley. We’re part of a larger air basin, and our watershed feeds into the Bay. In other words, in a highly integrated bio- and economic-region such as the Bay Area it is not possible to talk about sustainable development patterns without thinking about the region as a whole. The Bay Area is roughly defined as the nine counties that touch San Francisco Bay. It has a population of about 7 million people and 3.5 million jobs. The Bay Area is a diverse economic and environmental ecology. Economically, it includes 3 major cities: San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland and some 100 more other jurisdictions. With the decline of many traditional industries, Silicon Valley and its high-tech and bio-tech spin-off’s have driven much of the Bay Area’s economy – and much of the U.S. economy - for at least the past 30 years. Because the Bay Area is economically dynamic and physically attractive, over the next 30 years this region is expected to add some 2 M people and about 700,000 housing units.
  2. 2. Looking ahead, the fundamental question for a land use planner is: how do we accommodate growth and build sustainable places? The Bay Area is perhaps the epicenter of the environmental movement in this country. The Sierra Club was founded and is based here, the organizers of this conference are based here, and people from the Bay Area have consistently provided leadership on environmental issues. If any place is going to lead in meeting the sustainability challenges of the next 30 years, it is likely to be the Bay Area. How have we been doing? Some 25 years ago I was the principal author of a report for an organization known as People for Open Space, now known as the Greenbelt Alliance, on how to accommodate future housing needs while preserving the Bay Area’s greenbelt. That report, “Room Enough, Housing and Open Space in the Bay Area,” called for city-centered growth, urban growth boundaries, and a series of strategies to promote higher density development within existing urbanized areas in key locations: on infill locations, along major boulevards, in downtowns, on land recycled from obsolete industrial and commercial sites, and especially near transit. The plan showed how all of the projected growth from 1980 to 2000 could be accommodated within existing urban boundaries, making cities economically healthier, less car-dependent and at the same time preserving the region’s precious open space and prime agricultural lands. Today we call these strategies “smart growth”. Since that report was written, the Bay Area has implemented virtually all of those strategies and begun the transition to a post-suburban region. I say this with many caveats: a great deal of low density, single family home development is continuing, especially on the outskirts of the region, while jobs continue to focus in the central core of the region. The result is that despite increasing density in some locations, the region has not accommodated its housing needs, and there are longer and longer average commutes. But compared to where we were 25 years ago, some truly astounding changes have occurred: • Urban limit lines are now the rule rather than the exception in the Bay Area. • Whereas BART stations were surrounded by parking lots in the past, many are now locations of urban villages and transit oriented development.
  3. 3. • Many underutilized sites along major commercial boulevards are developed at higher densities. • Older downtowns have been transformed all over the region. • Mixed-use development has become a standard urban development type whereas it was nearly impossible to finance or build 25 years ago. These initiatives are the result of county-by-county, city-by-city public policy decisions, demographic shifts, and some significant shifts in the private development market – all coming together in ways to promote a different urban form. While suburban sprawl certainly didn’t stop, it has slowed, and revitalization of the inner ring of the Bay Area has taken off. In the past 5 years, a new set of forces has come into play further reinforcing the more sustainable development patterns that had already begun. • High cost gasoline. It will take years, but the cost of gasoline will have an impact on people’s decisions about where they live. The economics of long commutes has fundamentally shifted. • Healthy city movement. Health professionals are becoming more and more concerned with the impact land use patterns have on health. Child and adult obesity, heart disease, and a host of other diseases have become epidemic, and some of the reason can be traced to a car-oriented society. These health professionals are joining with land use planners to promote a new healthy cities movement promoting smart growth principles and walkable cities. • Climate Action. In California, AB 32 established a requirement to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The City of Berkeley has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Preliminary work by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and others has looked at what it will take to achieve the AB 32 requirement. Even when we’re able to adopt the fuel efficiency standards the Bush Administration has recently blocked, and if we are able to devise fuel sources with reduced carbon emissions, we will not get close to our reduction goal for the transportation sector that accounts for over 40% of emissions. The key is reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT. ABAG has estimated that to meet our GHG reductions we will need to reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled by 10 percent. Reduction in VMT is largely dependent on people getting out of their cars – and that means fundamental changes in land use. We will
  4. 4. need to significantly intensify existing developed areas served by public transit and near jobs. Unfortunately, despite, all of the changes I’ve described, VMT has been steadily increasing in the Bay Area. WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? I begin with the assumption that we will not tear down what has already been built, at least not in time frames that will make a difference to our goals. Even hints of redeveloping private property generate massive back-lashes, such as the current Proposition 98 on the June, 2008 California ballot, ostensibly intended to address Supreme Court decisions allowing taking of single family homes for economic development. I see no evidence today of any movement to undertake wholesale – or even small scale – demolition of areas within our cities in a manner that would allow them to be remolded, as was done 40 years ago as a result of introduction of redevelopment agencies. And if we’re talking about the least viable of our development types – the suburban tract – there is even less evidence of any desire to reconfigure what we’ve built. Even if there was a will, the cost of assembling it, demolishing it and rebuilding it would require sums of money that are not available. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the vast majority of this region is a fixed quantity and that most of it is not subject to enhanced transit due to unacceptably low densities and design. In order to meet GHG reduction targets, we need to reverse the trend line and significantly reduce per-capita VMT. The conclusion from both these assumptions is that we must ensure the 20 percent of the region that will be developed over the next 20 years is done right. We need to emphasize those same strategies first identified some 25 years ago, only on steroids. • The density of our downtowns near transit must go up, way up. • Our major boulevards, served by transit, must grow much more dense • We must take advantage of every square foot of underutilized land near transit and ensure that it is developed to its highest feasible intensity of use. Can we do it? Taking Berkeley as an example, the answer, physically, is undoubtedly we can. In locations highly accessible to transit, there’s room for thousands of units at higher densities: in Downtown near BART, near our other two BART Stations, and along our major boulevards which have some of the best bus transit in the State. This does not entail major transformation of existing neighborhoods,
  5. 5. although some neighborhoods will experience greater impacts than others as neighborhood edges are transformed. While the other cities I’ve worked in don’t have quite the remarkable quality of public transit as Berkeley, there’s no technical reason why they could not have better transit, and it’s more likely to improve if the density necessary to support it is located along key routes. Although I believe we can accomplish the goal, there is a very large gulf between “can”, and “will we do it,” both from a political and economic point of view. Challenges As I look toward whether we as a region can meet the challenge of reducing VMT through land use changes, there are some significant obstacles: • 110+ local jurisdictions in the Bay Area. Each community is responsible for controlling land use and many transportation decisions within the jurisdiction. Each community defines what it thinks is best for its own interests, and those interests may or may not coincide with the larger goals of the region or state. • Crumbling urban infrastructure. There has been significant disinvestment in public infrastructure in general, but that disinvestment is felt most in older cities with older infrastructure. It is just those places that will need to accommodate the growth. Adding more housing units means even more strain on those aging systems. • Uncoordinated transit. There is no effective coordination of transit in the Bay Area. There are over 25 systems, and going from one system to another can be difficult and coordinating investment among these competing systems to maximize benefit is challenging. • Economic incentives to sprawl. The economic incentive to urbanize greenfields sites is very strong. Land values increase many times when they shift from agricultural use to urban use. Subdivision houses are built on a factory model, while every single higher density infill project is “hand- crafted.” • The value of homes. The baby-boom generation has become property owners. The homes they purchased – especially in the Bay Area – have become their retirement savings, piggy bank, and kids’ inheritance. Any threat to the value of a home is a very serious matter, and higher density nearby is perceived as a threat, not only to home value but to the quality of life in the neighborhood. • Attachment to the “American Dream.” The dream of owning a detached home on its own lot surrounded by lawn is not a very old one. It is a post- World War II product. But it’s strongly held and hard to shake. • Fiscalization of land use. In California we have a special problem associated with how local government is financed. A major source of local
  6. 6. government funding is sales tax, and the poor land use decisions that often result from the need to maximize fiscal benefits are referred to as the “fiscalization of land use.” Jurisdictions promote those uses that provide fiscal benefits (such as a big-box retail) and discourage those uses that tend to have significant service costs (such as housing). When Walmart comes to town and asks to locate on that farm on the freeway off-ramp just outside the city limits, most city fathers and mothers rush to make it happen. A Walmart can mean a million dollars in annual revenue to that jurisdiction. There are many other challenges to sustainable development, including poor urban schools, dysfunctional urban healthcare systems and the lack of affordable housing. Last but certainly not least is local regulations establishing high parking requirements (even adjacent to transit), one of the greatest obstacles to very high-density development. The obstacles to a new urbanism are formidable. Planners all over this State and around the U.S. face similar challenges. To overcome them, we need a shift in thinking: density is the answer, not the problem; urban places are the best places to live, not dysfunctional, failing places; parking is the problem, not the solution. Thinking Globally and Acting Locally? Finally, let me come home to Berkeley. Berkeley is a leader in so many ways. In 2006, 80 percent of the voters in Berkeley voted to commit themselves to reducing greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050. We have established many programs to address global warming and implement sustainability, from energy efficiency programs to financing of solar energy, to car-free housing districts. But when it comes to land use - the building block of a sustainable city - acting locally is proving challenging. One example. The City has been working on a new plan for Downtown Berkeley. Downtown Berkeley is one of the two most transit-accessible locations in the East Bay. A 21 member advisory committee was formed to guide preparation of the new Downtown Area Plan. As a whole, the committee came to a great deal of consensus on what it wanted for Downtown. One of the foundations of the new plan is creation of a sustainable downtown: green buildings, better water treatment, more open space. Finally, the committee arrived at the key land use question: how tall should buildings be. Height of buildings has a direct correlation with how dense.
  7. 7. Everyone was willing to accept some increased density and some increase in height to achieve those densities. The disagreement was over how tall and how dense. One alternative would have allowed for about 4900 units, some of which could be in a few tall buildings 10 stories or taller. Another alternative would allow for 5400 units, and a few more tall buildings. We spent a great deal of time analyzing the green house gas impacts of each alternative, showing that the higher density alternative would have significantly less per-capita impact over those same units located elsewhere in the region. The higher density option lost on a 10 to 11 vote. What was troubling was not that the higher density option lost. What was troubling is that some of the leaders of the opposition were also some of the leading environmentalists in the community. I certainly expect that people will have different visions for their community, and that they would want to protect what they consider to be the key elements that define their community. However, meeting the challenge of greenhouse gases and sustainable communities means dramatic change in parts of our communities. We cannot accommodate 2 million people and reduce VMT without transforming portions of our communities. And at least some of the people who must not only understand that, but lead it, are not yet willing to face up to its implications at home. What will it take? We need great cities. We need to define a new American dream: a home located in compact cities, where we can walk our children to school, and have ready access to services and jobs without cars. We need to promote a vision of urban neighborhoods that work. We have great urban neighborhoods all over this country, and we need to make many, many more of them. But we need more than vision; we need public investment in our cities: • Renewing infrastructure • Increased green space and more amenities • New forms of urban water treatment • Better schools • Increased safety • Better transit • Affordable housing There are many more initiatives that could be added to this list. But there is one simple measure of livability : will people choose to raise their children there. When many more of us can answer yes, we will have turned the corner.
  8. 8. Carrots and Sticks (mostly carrots) We need to determine what carrots and sticks will move this process forward. Some form of regionalism is likely to be necessary if we are to implement many of the strategies that are needed to manage and accommodate growth in a sustainable manner. We also need to identify incremental strategies that respect the fundamental desire for people to control what happens in their community, balanced with the overarching needs of a larger society. This involves mostly carrots, and a few sticks. Our public investment dollars must be targeted to achieving our goals. The true environmental costs of unsustainable choices must be more fully set forth and borne by those who make those choices. Permanent Urban Limit LInes We need to maintain strong, permanent urban limit lines. This has multiple benefits: it stops sprawl, and it retains close-in open space for access for the public, for the quality of the environment, and for production of food. But we must also insist on accommodating growth within those limits, aggressively. If not, we get more of what has largely occurred over the past 25 years: residential growth further and further away, with even greater impacts on sustainability and climate. OUR OWN HOUSE IN ORDER: THINKING GLOBALLY MEANS SIGNIFICANT CHANGE LOCALLY As a local government planner, it is not my job to sell a particular point of view but to put forward programs, projects and policies consistent with the goals of the jurisdiction. Fortunately, much of what I have spoken about today is already the policy of the City of Berkeley, although not everyone is willing to accept that fact. If we are serious about meeting our goal of 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, we need to get serious about what that means for the physical character of Berkeley, and for all of the other cities in the Bay Area and the rest of the country committed to similar goals. It means significant change. But it doesn’t mean degrading the character of our community or the quality of our lives – if we invest in our cities, as we must. We’ve assigned ourselves no small task.