Democracy in Suburbia

The Economist asks: "Is California Back?" Contra Costa County wonders: "Were we gone?"

The refusal of California's cities and counties to permit sufficient new housing is one of those crucial problems that will define the state's future. Whether we build up existing communities or keep sprawling outward will determine our future rate of energy consumption and how well we can absorb immigrants, and it will dictate the long-term efficiency of our trains, freeways, and other transportation systems. It will determine the direction of housing prices and whether jobs will continue to grow here.

Yet year after year, Dunn's legislation has failed. A new bill that would create a statewide permit appeals panel with the power to overturn municipal decisions prohibiting new housing construction recently passed the state Senate. It will have a harder time in the Assembly, Dunn says. Arnold Schwarzenegger mouthed the term "smart growth" during his campaign for governor, which was interpreted as meaning he would support the type of urban infill California needs. He's said nothing of the sort since, Dunn says.

Meanwhile, residents of cities such as San Francisco actively beat back attempts to promote non-sprawling growth.

Earlier this month, wealthy owners of 1950s tract houses on the city's western shore pressured Mayor Gavin Newsom's planning director to eliminate language in the city's general plan that would have encouraged higher housing density and reduced parking spaces along transit corridors -- language that professional planners believe is crucial to providing enough housing for the region.

Ironically, a couple of days before the planning director gutted the city's housing requirements, the mayor announced he would fill the post of city housing czar with Matt Franklin, California's director of Housing and Community Development, the same agency that implements state law requiring cities to build sufficient housing. Franklin now has to turn San Francisco's mixed messages on housing into some kind of policy.

"I always assumed Franklin would not allow local jurisdictions to play games with the housing element law, and make local jurisdictions deal with their NIMBYism," Dunn said.

Dunn's thinking may be too hopeful, as other lonely struggles in California politics will illustrate.

When electricity industry groups spent more than $17 million on campaign spending and lobbying expenses, then packed a room to help draft a disastrous energy restructuring bill, the result was a $25 billion debacle. Californians were supposed to have learned their lesson; they kicked out campaign-cash-grubbing Gray Davis and elected a rich movie star who said he wouldn't need corporate funds. But the fact is, such corporate donors as Wal- Mart, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Hansel Phelps Construction underwrite Arnold Schwarzenegger's Sacramento home at the downtown Hyatt Regency. His can-do policy coups -- stripping down workmen's compensation, fobbing off state debt to future taxpayers, and pushing through a cash-strapped budget without raising taxes -- represent the fulfillment of corporate-donor priorities.

And even small campaign finance reforms face a tough road. A bill backed by Common Cause that would publicly fund campaigns for all state offices passed an Assembly committee last month but was recently "suspended" into legislative limbo.

Water districts all over the state have depleted sources for so long that figuring out ways to extract more water runs them up against the Endangered Species Act: Further extraction, diversion, and storage will kill off flora and fauna. The Bush administration and some members of Congress, including Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), see a solution: Revise federal law to make it easier to kill endangered species.

During the 1990s, the state and federal governments pursued a scheme by which California water systems would pull significantly more water out of the Sacramento River Delta while spending more money to improve the Delta ecosystem. After more than a year of public meetings, the proposals to extract more water stalled. The program still limps along like a farmer and environmentalist debate club. Economists have reportedly urged the governor to turn his attention to water, but so far he's barely mentioned the issue.

Meanwhile, experts agree that current supplies are insufficient to keep pace with the insatiable growth of California subdivisions. And the subdivisions themselves are a key to why California continues to ignore its most important policy imperatives.

There's a reason why Californians have collectively withdrawn so far from public problem-solving that critical problems seem hidden even from the scrutiny of the venerable Economist.

Rapid suburbanization is nothing new in California, and the phenomenon is not unique to this state. But the pace of sprawl has been so fast here, and the sprawling process has continued for so long, that we've become pioneers of a new type of civic culture, one that has little interest in public life beyond the confines of a local neighborhood. The developed areas created during the past half-century of California growth don't bear much relation to a previous understanding of cities and their collective public concerns.

Look east from San Francisco at Contra Costa County, an area with a population of a million people but without a single amenity one might associate with a population that size. There is no major university, symphony, sports team, important museum, economic development strategy, or big-picture civic identity of any kind.

After a half-century of overpass-oriented growth, it's become increasingly true that there's actually no therein most of inhabited California. As the Economist hinted at in an excellent survey on American sprawl a few years ago, for every unique California place such as San Francisco's Union Square or Santa Barbara's State Street, there is a surrounding Rhode Island-sized patch of anonymous cul-de-sacs and strip malls. Ask a resident of Bay Area suburb Morgan Hill if she fancies herself in the same lot as a family in Bay Area suburb Suisun, 92 miles to the north, and you'll likely get a shrug.

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