Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What Kind of Dense?

Regional planning is becoming a major issue as the funding becomes available from the Federal government for local projects as well as transit and infrastructure development and renovation. The issue in California is the promotion of a rationale within the SB 375 legislation that uses the need for regional cooperation in transit, for example, as a means of saying that all cities must accommodate large development projects in order to reduce greenhouse gasses, the basis for this legislation.

The premise is false, for starters. More square footage equals more CO2, period. This doesn't work. Red herring.

This legislation removes local control and busts CEQA. That's not a constructive approach. It means no control over projects, and in fact the RHNA numbers that get assigned to General Plans during housing element updates far exceed the need for housing, and breaks the link between the development and the resources needed to support that development that the General Plans are supposed to document. It's just a development steamroller. I've heard this transit-oriented development mantra over and over as a justification for this, and it's not true, it's undermining the very processes that are supposed to keep development contained as a functional element of the City's whole structure. What you've got now is an unfunded mandate to build out beyond the City's ability to carry the resulting costs.

The infrastructure balance is a crucial one, especially as we'll see very shortly with water and power issues (don't have enough to go around). The development community is going to have to work with the local communities to propose projects that reduce the actual footprint of the built environment as well as deal with the local transit issues that feed into the regional ones.

This "drive 'til you qualify" sprawl model can't continue under any scenario, I think everybody can start there. How did it come about? The Federal and local highway programs that allowed sprawl to be possible. These were models that made Detroit, the building industry and the oil companies very profitable for the entire post-WWII era, and never accounted for the impact of all this growth.

Now the risk is getting priced into the model, as they say, and so costs will go up for everything to pay back for that. Sustainability uses natural systems and processes rather than fighting them, which is far less expensive. If infrastructure projects are used to return natural process into place, as well as cut the consumption rate of energy, water, etc. then things will start to come back into balance.

The answer will lie in lifestyle changes and living patterns that are not so isolated, it'll be like Europe - how socialistic! - which makes sense because now we're built out like they've been for hundreds of years. Yet everyone wants to travel to Europe for vacation, it's so charming, historical and small-scale. I think that's a clue. It means the 60 years of unfettered post-war development and pollution (USA produces the most CO2 per capita) wasn't beneficial globally and has to change. It'll change incrementally as people see that the mega-mansions are like the old castles of Europe that nobody can afford anymore. I think calming down the development extremes will make a big difference, and insisting on environmental repair as the cost of doing things. Not busting CEQA, for pete's sake.

We've had regional coordination of water and power by the utilities, and transportation route planning is regional, as well. But the money has been in a growth model that doesn't work any more, and that's what we'll have to address in a coordinated fashion with local municipalities and counties. Of course the means of doing that is the General Plan. If profits can be generated in the cities by replacing or adapting what's built there instead of adding to it, and the resources are there to do it, then that's what's in the plan. Profits can be made with other kinds of development, such as social networking, entertainment, information, community events, farmer's markets, etc. etc. rather than the bricks and mortar that the banks insist on using to base their derivatives markets on. That's not counted at all in the General Plan, and maybe it's time to look at that as an official land use type that produces positive revenue. Right now it's booked at a loss as "public space" which is why all the public and open space is getting sold off.

The way to account for these things is by using natural capital to price in the risk of destructive development. It acknowledges productive open space land uses and counts them as a plus instead of a negative. What used to be simply "for the public good" is now assigned value, since everything has go on the balance sheet these days.