An historic election cycle, rising gas prices, a struggling real estate market, and a global credit crunch are forcing voters and politicians alike to rethink the behavior and models that have shaped American life since the middle of the 20th century. In the following TPR interview, Ventura City Manager Rick Cole makes a persuasive case that Americans must find a way to ensure that the silver lining in these troubling times will be new development standards based on the smart growth model.
With the unprecedented run-up in gas prices at the pump, do you think smart growth is an idea whose time has finally come?
Yes, but I'd offer two qualifiers. First, gas prices will go down. They'll never go back down to what we paid a year ago, but the slowing global economy will eventually bring some temporary relief. Second, we can't put long-term policies at the mercy of immediate crises. I think it's important to take the long view. It's not today's gas prices that will force adoption of a smart growth model-suburban sprawl is doomed by the triple witching hour of heating up the planet, running up unsustainable debt, and running out of cheap energy.
That view has yet to penetrate the media and political mainstream. The dominant voices insist we can restore business as usual either by greater production of existing energy sources or by switching to new energy sources-or both. Even most environmentalists focus on greener cars.
Understandably. We've been building both our landscape and our economy around the car for more than 60 years. Even if we adopted a universal program of smart growth across America tomorrow, it would be decades before we had repaired and reshaped our landscape and economy to a more sustainable model. In the meantime, there will be tremendous pressure to exploit existing and new energy sources to maintain the suburban model we live in. But we can't ignore Stein's Law. Herb Stein was the pragmatic economist who first observed, "Things which can't go on forever, don't."
Will California be a leader?
We should be. We can only continue to be the sixth-largest economy in the world if we adopt public policies that will reduce energy waste, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and reinvest in older communities. But not only that, we need to harness this vital transformation to produce high wage private sector jobs and new wealth. If Silicon Valley can continue to make money on innovative technology, California as a whole should be investing in a new landscape and a new economy that is also exportable to the rest of the world. Obviously, our current civic and political culture is too mired in partisan division to make these changes. But California's landmark Climate Solutions Act (AB 32) is going to force many of these issues sooner and more radically than most people now realize.
Why will AB 32 be such a dynamic driver of change for smart growth?
Because we can't possibly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 without reducing vehicle miles traveled. With transportation producing 40 percent of the problem, improved fuel efficiency will help-and so will switching to alternative fuels. But those gains are essentially wiped out by the offsetting increases in population and mileage that people are traveling. We can't continue to replicate sprawl and comply with AB 32. Attorney General Jerry Brown may have jumped the gun by suing San Bernardino County over their General Plan, but the longer we delay rewriting every zoning code in the state, the higher the price we will pay in the long run.
That price is staggering. I haven't seen figures for California, but The Economist says that this year alone, the oil-importing nations will transfer $2 trillion dollars to the oil exporting nations. That's money that won't go to improve our infrastructure, won't go to protect our environment, and won't go to educating our youth. It goes out our tailpipes.
Is there a connection between the cost of sprawl and the state's budget crisis?
Absolutely. Let's remember the role the infamous "car tax" played in all of this. Back in Virginia, repealing their vehicle licensing fee got a Republican elected Governor. So Pete Wilson, ever the opportunist, jumped on the bandwagon. The Democrats went along with a big cut so they didn't get run over. But they insisted that if revenues fell, it would automatically go back up, which is what Gray Davis let it do. That cost him his job, and his successor has never made up for the lost revenue. On top of that, he's floated a $20 billion transportation bond that's heavily tilted toward highway spending that only compounds our structural deficit.
To his credit, he's put in a Caltrans director who frankly admits we can't build our way out of congestion. Our green governor has yet to publicly admit it, but it's another example of Stein's law: that which is unsustainable eventually comes to a stop. The budget crunch, climate change, and peak oil are forcing a day of reckoning. Back in 1995, Bank of America's "Beyond Sprawl" report predicted this day: "As we approach the 21st century, it is clear that sprawl has created enormous costs that California can no longer afford." But it has taken gas at $5 a gallon for people to wake up and smell the fumes.
Do you think the change will be driven by the market or by public policy?
House prices have plummeted in Victorville and Palmdale. All across the state there are promising examples of smart growth, form-based coding, mixed-use, and transit-oriented development. But we haven't quite reached the tipping point yet. That makes for a volatile situation.
One thing that gave me hope was the way McCain's stupid gas tax holiday played out on the national scene. Hillary Clinton grabbed it and tried to use it beat Obama in North Carolina and Indiana. It was the first time the gas issue had surfaced and clearly she thought she had a winner. But Obama showed incredible backbone, especially given the high stakes of being double-teamed by both McCain and Clinton. He had the guts to call it what it was: "A phony scheme that's typical of how Washington works." When the votes were counted, her gas plan tanked. McCain is still pushing it, but it just ties him into the failed Bush agenda. We'll see whether the November election fosters a climate for change we can believe in.
What about at the local level? Will it get easier to build in a greener and more sustainable way?
Easier? No. Building anything will be hard for a while yet-both economically and politically. But California has shown incredible resilience over the past 150 years. Our growing population and changing demographics will open up a huge market for reinvesting in our older communities, in and around the core of our key regions. Now is the time to prepare for that opportunity. Remember during the last deep real estate downturn, Pete Wilson abandoned his promise to tackle statewide growth management. His excuse was, "I wish I had some growth to manage." The tragedy of that missed opportunity was that it wasn't long before growth again overwhelmed our capacity.
What if we'd not only put in place a coherent growth management strategy, like Oregon, New Jersey, or Maryland, but we'd also established the collaborative regional structures in place in metro Denver, Salt Lake City, or Portland? Today, we'd be finishing the Subway to the Sea, the Gold Line extension to Ontario Airport, and we'd have regular commuter rail between Ventura and Santa Barbara-and $5 gas would be a little less painful.
Can that still be done?
It will be done. But it's too early to see who is going to do it. The job is open.