Sprawl Valley

It’s mid-July, and the fourteenth day in a row over 100 degrees. In the 3,000-square-foot beige stucco homes in “Willow Glen Estates,” a mega-subdivision tucked behind a giant soundwall off the freeway, air conditioners are blowing on high, bringing California’s power grid to the boiling point. Outside, sprinklers oscillate at high speed, in a vain attempt to salvage green lawns, while the San Joaquin River nearby is a deserted bed of gravel. The kids that live in the big stucco houses aren’t outside running through the sprinklers—they’re inside, online, surfing the net, text-messaging their friends, or watching widescreen TV in the high-ceiling media room. Even if temperatures weren’t in the triple digits, there’s not much to do anyway—when Willow Glen Estates went in, the oaks and willows were cleared away, the babbling brook was silenced in a pipe, and the weedy fields hopping with bugs and birds were paved over. The closest city is miles off—although a big-box strip mall is just a car trip away.

As California’s population grows, and more people move to the Central Valley or to below-sea-level subdivisions in the Delta, because they can’t afford to live in a city or don’t want to—this grim scene may become even more common. As farmland continues to be converted to megaburbs and more people move to hotter places—and live in bigger houses—an ever-increasing load will be put on California’s energy grid, says John Landis, city and regional planning professor at UC Berkeley. If it weren’t for these new developments in hot places, the state’s energy use would actually be going down, due to overall improvements the state has made in energy efficiency, according to the California Energy Commission’s Arthur Rosenfeld. But California’ peak energy demand today is about 50,000 megawatts, compared with 37,000 megawatts during the 2001 energy crisis. (One megawatt powers about 750 homes.)

And because many of these new subdivisions have lawns, water will be another resource in great demand, says the Public Policy Institute’s Ellen Hanak, who predicts that the amount of water used by outdoor landscapes could increase by as much as 1.2 million acre-feet a year as a result of new developments in the valley. Those acre-feet are enough to serve about 4.8 million people—or to “restore the San Joaquin River twice,” as Ronnie Cohen with the Natural Resources Defense Council puts it. In other words, water that could be flowing in our rivers for fish is instead keeping mini-oases alive in the middle of the desert.

Alrie Middlebrook, who runs a landscaping firm in the South Bay, has begun a “lose the lawn” campaign to show people how attractive native and drought-tolerant landscapes can be. Middlebrook hopes the valley will not be covered with turf: “When you think that 60 percent of household water use goes to landscaping&it’s intractable, it just can’t happen.” She points out that as the price of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and gas for mowers goes up, the attraction of an English manor style lawn may go down.

But it isn’t just the environment that will be strained as a result of our current development patterns. Dr. Richard Jackson, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that if we continue to build ill-planned subdivisions far from transit or real communities with a “there there,” we are building “recipes for depression.” Jackson acknowledges that affordability is an enormous driver for the influx of folks into hotter inland areas. “I understand that people have got to live somewhere, ” he says. “And I know that very few people pick a place 100 miles from where they work because they like to drive.”

Jackson says one of the most fundamental problems with the kind of suburbs being built in California today is that developers come in, build the subdivision, and say they’ll worry about things like water drainage, public transit, and access to larger services like schools and health care later. “We decide after we put people in place—oh, how can we retrofit these things into our communities? You’d think we hadn’t discovered planning 100 years ago.” And in a place like the valley, he adds, the heat exacerbates many of the problems. “Here is this basin with all of the natural heat challenges it has. It has astonishingly bad air quality, and we’re putting more and more people with huge demands for cars and fuel—and more air pollution—into it.” Many children in the valley can’t play outside because air quality is so bad, says Jackson. “We’re going to have to start thinking more clearly about where we are putting people,” says Jackson. “We’ve got to start providing adequate housing in our cities.”

Children in these suburbs far from wild places or even a vacant, weedy field often have a lack of “self-directed, autonomous” time—the kind many of us had growing up, says Jackson. “We’re turning to televisions and computers as babysitters by creating home settings that are too cosseted and too protected,” he says. “We don’t feel comfortable enough for children to roam and explore and grow in their own autonomy.”

It’s a myth that kids can’t be healthy in cities, says Jackson—they need stimulation: “We don’t want to put them in the path of danger, but they need to be able to explore, they need physical challenges.” Jackson says he increasingly sees suburban parks in which all of the trees have been limbed up so kids can’t climb—and possibly fall.

But even if we buy the idea that cities might not be all bad for kids—and built more affordable family housing and better schools in our cities—can we let go of that American goal of the nice, big house and requisite car and lawn? It seems—in the Central Valley at least—the the dream is still selling.

“It doesn’t make sense given the demographic changes we’re seeing overall,” says Judy Corbett with the Local Government Commission, a Sacramento nonprofit that researches land use, transportation, and water issues for local governments. “[Moving to the suburbs] probably still is the American dream for a certain percentage of the population, but today only about 23 percent of the population is a family with kids. We’ve got all kinds of single or married people without kids these days.”

Corbett sees other models. Reedley, a small city near Fresno, drew up a specific plan with smaller houses and lots. “The idea was to have housing connected to downtown and other destinations, mixed-use, less dependency on cars, a less energy-consuming lifestyle.” But to find better models, Corbett looks to Vancouver. “There are great places for kids there, and it continues to densify,” she says. “They have required developers to offer open space and put in certain amounts of low-income housing and community buildings. It’s been designed so sensitively.”

So if most of the potential home-buying population is singles, people without children, or empty-nesters, why are we still seeing the same old McMansions? How can we change this trend? From the inside-out, says developer John Anderson of New Urban Builders, a firm building infill housing in places like Redding and Chico. Anderson says that part of the problem is that even though demographics have changed, much of the market is based on what is already out there. “The problem is that the market doesn’t offer people enough options,” says Anderson. Single women are talked into buying three bedroom/two bath houses for the resale value. People buy the giant beige 3,000-square-foot “snout-nose ranchburger” (ranch style home with huge garage bulging out in front) with four bedrooms, three baths, and a “café room” because that’s what’s offered, and because if there is a choice between living in something too small or too large, people would rather have too much room than not enough, says Anderson.

A café room? “It’s this extra room off the kitchen where you can feel like you’re in a café,” he explains. “There’s this concept in suburban development that unpleasantness in life can be avoided through the purchase of the right real estate—that media rooms and exotic, gourmet kitchens will compensate whatever other loneliness you have in your life.”

Anderson says he would rather deal with life’s unpleasantness within the social context of a town or city. His firm is trying to build in areas where there is “something going on,” and they are building smaller homes—most between 1,100 and 1,500 square feet—using greener materials, and basing their designs on older neighborhoods. The homes range from lofts to bungalows to rowhouses, have tiny front lawns (if any), garages in the rear, and front porches—and they aren’t made of beige stucco. “When we first started, people told us we were crazy to have someone living over a garage or a front porch and an alley in the back or a three-story rowhouse in Chico. They said, ‘Oh well, you’re in a granola-crunching Birkenstock-wearing hippie town, they’ll buy anything.'” But, says Anderson, everyone from nurses to teachers to firefighters is living in the new, old-style houses. “Some of the empty nesters are giddy at the prospect at not having to mow a huge lawn, not to mention the environmental benefits,” says Anderson. One resident told Anderson with the money she is saving on lawn care (she has a patio with potted plants), she can afford to travel to Europe every year.

How can Anderson compete with the big homebuilding companies who dominate the market? One way is by building in places where there is already a “there there.” Another is building what he thinks people appreciate versus patterning his developments after what already exists and building as cheaply as possible. Anderson thinks that the “isolated monocultures of cute little houses off the interchange, generic places with the congestion of a central city and culture of a cow pasture” will soon go the way of the dinosaurs. “It’ll happen through forces bigger than smart people thinking it through,” he says. “You’ve got folks at the peak of their earning years making choices about how to spend their remaining years, people with both the resources and motivation to do things differently. They’ll start looking around at choices, and most often, they’ll want to be where there is some culture. The café room will be the first thing to go.”

The other big catalyst for change, he says, “will be the fact that we have reached peak oil and can no longer live in a place where you have to get in a car to go buy a pencil. I think there will be lots of choices made about things like whether we can still afford to live in a place when gas becomes even more expensive, or whether we’ll live in a place where we’ll be able to shed the second car.”

But the biggest motivator, say both Jackson and Anderson, will be the human need for community and social contact. Says Jackson, “We’ve lost our deep communitarian sense. The most prevalent disease in America today is depression—and the antidotes are being with other people, having social support, social engagement, exercise—people have to be able to get out and do things without driving for miles.”

Says Jackson, “I think [the solution] has to be bottom-up and top-down—bottom-up is that the community has to demand other options—and academics and experts need to give them the tools and data and the power to demand something different. Top-down—there ultimately has to be political leadership instead of local, state, and federal bureaucracies fighting over diminishing resources.” While we may not have that kind of leadership in California right now, Jackson is instilling the next generation of planners with a different ethic. “I tell my graduate students that we need to do better multidisciplinary planning. We’ve got to approach [development] from all angles, in a ‘transvisionary’ kind of way, not in this piecemeal fashion. The environment and human health are directly related. The more we build places that isolate and fragment people’s lives, the worse our health problems will become. We need quality dense developments with bike routes, green cover, daylighted creeks, and shade, places that don’t require the constant use of vehicles, places that are sustainable in both the environmental and human sense.”

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