Smart Growth Strategy: Shaping the future of the nine-county Bay Area
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What is Smart Growth?

The 3 "E's"

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Smart Growth in Action

The 3 "E"s of Sustainability

The objective of the Smart Growth Strategy/Regional Livability Footprint Project is to figure out how the Bay Area can maintain its economic vitality and conserve natural resources while allowing all segments of society to share in the region’s economic and environmental assets. Planners and policymakers in the Bay Area have found it useful to distill these concepts into the three “Es” of sustainability mentioned above: a prosperous economy, a quality environment and social equity.

Chief among the factors negatively impacting the Bay Area economy is the shortage of housing. Many workers struggle to find housing they can afford, while businesses are facing upward pressures on wage levels, and often have difficulties recruiting employees.

In recent years, new housing construction has not nearly kept up with the pace of job growth, particularly in booming job centers such as Silicon Valley, where just over half the housing needed for expected workers and their families by 2010 is projected to be built. If current trends continue, the Bay Area economy is projected to grow by an additional 1 million new jobs in the next 20 years. Local jurisdictions have zoned for only a little over half the amount of housing needed to accommodate these workers and their families, assuming a regionwide average of 1.5 workers per household. This will leave a staggering excess of 250,000 jobs over employed residents by 2020, leading to higher housing prices and more long-distance commuting.

In part as a result of this inadequate supply of new housing, the region already suffers from extraordinarily high housing costs. According to the National Association of Home Builders, five of the 10 least affordable places in the country to buy a home are in the Bay Area. The California Association of Realtors estimates that as of May 2001, just 19 percent of Bay Area households could afford to buy the region’s median-priced home of $484,000. Renters also face a skyrocketing housing market. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties are the least affordable counties for renters in the United States.

The region, therefore, faces a tough choice: increase the rate of housing development, particularly near job centers, or take measures to manage the rate of job growth in the region. The Bay Area’s continuing dynamism and ability to attract talent and investment depend directly on the region’s ability to plan responsibly for its future growth. A smart growth strategy for the region would address the shortage of housing – particularly affordable housing – and imbalances between jobs and housing. By doing so, smart growth policies could help reduce long-distance commuting, traffic congestion and the escalating cost of doing business in the Bay Area.

The Bay Area has a rich diversity of terrain, bioregions and microclimates. These natural resources are central to the culture and lifestyle of Bay Area residents, and are extraordinarily valuable in their own right. The San Francisco Bay-Delta is the largest estuary system on the west coast of North America, containing 90 percent of California’s remaining coastal wetlands, and is a key stop on the Pacific Flyway for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Regional ecosystems also provide important habitat for a number of endangered and threatened species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, the Bay checkerspot butterfly, the California red-legged frog, the California black rail, the Alameda whipsnake and the California least tern.

Much has been done to create parkland and improve the Bay Area’s environmental quality. More than 20 percent of the nine-county region, or about 1 million acres, is permanently protected open space, accordingto the Greenbelt Alliance. But past urbanization has dirtied the region’s air and water, consumed important wildlife habitat, and created toxic contamination in many areas. Creeks have been culverted and one third of the Bay’s original wetlands have been drained, diked or filled. As the region grows more populous, the pressure to build on open space and agricultural lands will intensify.

Our air, while getting cleaner, occasionally fails to meet state and federal standards for health. Automobiles and the refineries that support them also are getting cleaner, but both remain major sources of air pollution.

A smart growth strategy for the region can consider ways to limit the environmental impacts of future urban development. Major challenges include preventing loss of open space and habitat and reducing air and water pollution. At the same time, smart growth policies can consider ways to restore natural ecosystems in existing urban areas and provide new parks and recreational resources.

Social Equity
Smart growth strategies can address the housing, employment and service needs of low-income residents, and contribute to the creation of diverse communities. Construction of housing for a mix of incomes throughout the region will improve access to employment and shorten commutes. Improvements in public transportation and mixed-use development along transit lines can enhance job access and allow low-income residents to reach needed services. Increasing housing densities in impoverished communities can enable such neighborhoods to support basic services like grocery stores and child-care.

Such initiatives must be designed, however, to prevent the unintended consequence of low-income resident displacement. Regional economic growth since the mid-1990s has led to a wave of rent increases and evictions that have displaced residential and commercial tenants across the Bay Area and have threatened the character and composition of neighborhoods. Planning for regional livability means investing in low-income communities in ways that protect and strengthen long-time residents and community institutions. Visit our Social Equity Video page to see more on these issues.

The Bay Area is simultaneously one of the wealthiest regions in the world, and a region characterized by growing inequalities. Over the past decade, the gap between high- and low-wage earners has widened at the same time that social services spending has decreased and housing costs have skyrocketed. The most dire consequence of this growing income inequality is that the number of children living in poverty in the nine-county region has jumped to nearly 15 percent, with heavy concentrations of poor children living in the central cities and poor rural areas (U.S. Census poverty estimates). Moreover, homelessness has climbed to an estimated 50,000 persons throughout the region on any given night.

Low-income Bay Area residents face particularly difficult challenges in finding affordable housing in markets with high rents and low vacancy rates. At the same time, homeownership remains far out of reach for most Bay Area families who do not already own.

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