August 30, 2007 - From the August, 2007 issue

Ventura City Manager Rick Cole Reimagines ‘Smart Growth'

In theory, sustainability and smart growth are common sense goals for development. Yet these principles have proven difficult to incorporate into practice, often appearing as window dressing for density. In the following essay, exclusive to TPR, Ventura City Manager Rick Cole adds his voice to the growing number of commentators who see the need to reevaluate our approach to smart growth and sustainability. Cole makes a case for a holistic sustainability that doesn't give into the marketing jingles or oppression of suburban communities to which smart growth is susceptible.

Rick Cole

Americans have always been practical dreamers. We aim to be an example to the world, but we focus on things that work quickly.

That's the challenge for sustainable cities today. There is a growing popularity to all things "green." Many people, particularly young people, have embraced a glowing vision of an eco-friendly future. Yet there is also a propensity to look for shortcuts-as if we can end global warming and live happily after, if only everyone would screw in new lightbulbs, lug grocery bags to the store, and sit through the Al Gore movie.

The same shallow sensibility is at work at the local government level, as elected officials jump on the bandwagon and announce five- and ten-point programs to, for example, buy recycled paper and alternative fuel vehicles, set aside more "open space," and sign onto the Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement. Even the real estate industry, who, in the public mind, ranks with oil companies as the world's environmental buccaneers, have rapidly embraced the slogans of "smart growth" and "green building."

All fine, as far as they go. But they don't take us very far.

Admittedly, it's paralyzing for most people to comprehend the interlocking environmental, economic, and social equity challenges confronting the planet. It is equally daunting to imagine far-reaching changes in the way we do business, live our lives, and reshape our communities.

Chinese folk wisdom captures both the dilemma and the opportunity: "Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step." The key is balance. We must remain vigilant against trivializing the magnitude of change needed to build sustainable communities, thus shortchanging our future and ourselves. We must be equally aware not to discourage promising improvements due to a misplaced "zero tolerance" of anything less than environmental, economic, and equitable perfection.

So that means a much more in-depth and sophisticated public dialogue about sustainability than just touting superficial gestures and avoiding hard questions. The future is not a stark choice between more of the same or all of us living self-sufficiently off the land in straw-bale houses.


We might start with the recognition that there is no such thing as a "smart growth" or a "sustainable" real estate project in isolation. Yes, it is better for a new development to have narrower streets, solar energy collectors, detention basins for stormwater, and a mix of uses within walking distance of each other. Obviously, we should look for such dimensions in every project, encouraging them at every turn. Yet it is the community-wide context that is crucial to such parts adding up to a "smart growth" or "sustainable" whole.

There is no more crucial leverage point for this in Southern California than the intersection of land use and transportation. Such an integrated perspective is pathetically lacking. There remains a radical disconnect between a continued reliance on autos and trucks for mobility and increased population growth and density. Here we remain locked into a "dialogue of the deaf" between two "convenient untruths." The emerging business/real estate/government agency line is that promoting "mixed-use infill" and increased housing densities will magically foster transit and reduce commute times. The equally disingenuous rejoinder from the conventional suburban mindset of Southern California neighborhoods and communities is that preserving existing building patterns, scale, and lifestyle choices will curb congestion and the erosion of our quality of life. This polarization ducks demographic and economic reality: the world in which we live cannot sustain continued sprawl, nor can it sustain increased density via infill without decisive investment in better mobility options.

Like the New England farmer who told the frustrated tourists, "You can't get there from here," the quest to promote density without simultaneously developing transit to serve it is not even politically sustainable-forget its environmental or economic limitations. Equally, freezing the current auto-oriented, suburban sprawl patterns of the vast majority of our regional landscape will eviscerate our competitiveness in the global economy and aggravate the growing social tensions between haves and have-nots. Without envisioning, designing, and committing ourselves to a holistic vision of sustainability, we will continue to amass crushing gigantic environmental and economic obligations for our children and grandchildren.

The recent spotlight on the zone changes proposed for Downtown Los Angeles aptly captures this challenge. The vote became an artificial test of "smart growth," as if the issue could be boiled down simply to density and parking ratios. As the buzz over the new Downtown Ralph's Market demonstrates, creating a successful context for urban life is about more than buildings- it's about creating integrated neighborhoods that truly work for people, aren't dependent on the auto to provide access to shopping, recreation, work and services, and that are safe and attractive to varied incomes and lifestyles.

To put it bluntly, we are going to have to get over our ingrained desire to drive and park our cars anywhere we want, free of charge. We are going to have to design and rebuild our landscape to work for transit, bikes, and pedestrians (not just cars) and invest in a transit system that is not a haphazard joke. California has gained international recognition for embracing 1990 emission limits on our 2020 future, yet the massive state infrastructure bonds, with their continued building of more and wider highways, are taking us in the opposite direction. It matters only at the margins whether they are freeways or tollways; what really counts is whether we are going to build our current and future communities around people or cars. To date, no one at SCAG or the county transportation agencies has been willing to even say this, let alone tackle it.

It's right to dream and it's right to be practical. In fact, one without the other is folly. So let's not fool ourselves. Creating sustainable communities is hard, long-term, exciting work. It involves dialogue and balance. It will be achieved neither by well-intentioned gestures nor by overnight revolution. For Southern California, it begins with replacing an unsustainable suburban mindset with a regional perspective where each community reformulates the environmental, economic, and social equity aspects of their vision strategies. Then we have to commit ourselves to the fundamental changes that are the only way to alter the unsustainable path we currently tread.


© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.