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
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.
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
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
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
• Urban limit lines are now the rule rather than the exception in the Bay
• Whereas BART stations were surrounded by parking lots in the past,
many are now locations of urban villages and transit oriented
• 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
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%
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
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
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
• 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
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,
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.
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-
• 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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
OUR OWN HOUSE IN ORDER: THINKING GLOBALLY MEANS SIGNIFICANT
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.