Plan for the Future

How Local Governments Can Help Implement California's New Land Use and Climate Change Legislation

July 1, 2010
Ethan Elkind

Sustainable development refers to resource-efficient land use where residents live within walking distance of key services and mass transit and where neighborhoods contain a compact mix of uses, such as housing, office, and retail. Residents in sustainable developments do not have to drive a car to get to jobs and run errands, and the compact footprint of these neighborhoods lessens development pressure on open space and farmland.

Americans are demanding more sustainable development. A United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey of residential building permit data in the fifty largest metropolitan areas between 1990 and 2008 showed a substantial increase in the share of new construction built in central cities and older suburbs, with a particularly dramatic rise over the past five years – including during the recent real estate downturn. In California, the share of residential construction in historic central cities and core suburban communities has also increased in the state’s major metropolitan regions between 1995 and 2008. And a March 2010 national poll by Transportation for America found that three out of five voters, including rural voters, place a lower priority on new and expanded roads than on improved public transportation and policies that make walking and biking easier.

Sustainable development, however, faces significant regulatory, political, and financial hurdles. Some areas, especially where residents, planners, and elected officials lack a clear vision of what a sustainable community may look like, may experience paralyzing local opposition, expressed as fear of increased traffic and decreasing property values. Community opposition can then translate into lack of political support at the local level. In addition, many local governments lack the resources, financing, and expertise to facilitate sustainable development in older urban areas that sometimes require significant infrastructure upgrades. In some instances, outdated local land use plans and ordinances work to prevent precisely the type of neighborhoods that many Californians are now demanding.

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