February 19, 2024 - From the February, 2023 issue

Cary Lowe on How Storms Have Exposed Infrastructure Neglect in Poor Neighborhoods

The unprecedented Southern California storms hitting the state throughout the beginning of the year have put a strain on the state, putting spotlights on neglected and weak points in many cities’ infrastructures and public utilities systems, especially in poorer and historically diverse neighborhoods. TPR republishes, with permission, a piece from the San Diego Union-Tribune written by Cary Lowe, retired land use lawyer, which explains the problems San Diego’s more neglected neighborhoods are facing as a result of the storms. Lowe highlights the communities’ demands for greater equity in the face of growing environmental and climate related instability.

Cary Lowe

“The greatest impact of infrastructure deficiencies and failures is felt in disadvantaged communities. This represents the culmination of decades of poor planning, denial of public resources and private sector discrimination.” - Cary Lowe

Recent events remind us of how low-income communities and communities of color in the San Diego area have been shortchanged for generations in provision of public infrastructure and services.

Reports over the past year highlighted crumbling streets, buckling sidewalks, rupturing water and sewer mains, and inadequate storm drains, especially in older areas of the city of San Diego. The estimated cost of meeting upgrade needs for the next five years is over $6 billion, while the city expects to have just one-fourth of that available. More than a third of city streets are in poor condition or worse, with the overall system rated merely fair. That puts San Diego well behind Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities.

Most dramatic, though, are catastrophic infrastructure failures like the flooding of neighborhoods during the recent storms. A system built on outdated rainfall assumptions, coupled with lack of drainage in some areas, produced backed-up drains and overflowing channels, leaving low-lying areas deep in stormwater and mud. This is different from the occasional floods in Mission Valley, where streets and shopping malls were designed to accommodate overflows from the San Diego River.

The greatest impact of infrastructure deficiencies and failures is felt in disadvantaged communities. This represents the culmination of decades of poor planning, denial of public resources and private sector discrimination. These communities were planned haphazardly, without the orderly subdivision and comprehensive infrastructure typical of newer and more-affluent neighborhoods.

Discriminatory bank lending practices, along with racial exclusion enforced by real estate brokers and covenants in property deeds, ensured the least desirable areas would become and would remain concentrations of low-income and racial minority residents, and that their properties would stagnate in value compared with the rest of the region. It is no coincidence that the least desirable geographical locations, such as those most susceptible to flooding, or near undesirable land uses like refineries or prisons, were left to those who could not afford better or were excluded elsewhere.

Since these communities generated less property tax revenue and possessed less political clout, local governments found it convenient to deny them ongoing investments that could have improved their quality of life, better protected them from natural disasters and made them more resilient.

Today, when these past discriminatory practices are recognized and rightfully criticized, we have to address their long-term impacts. Yet, even now, variations of the same practices continue, in less venal but still damaging ways.

Residents of neighborhoods that recently flooded have complained for years about inadequate stormwater drainage systems and insufficient maintenance of drains and channels. Climate change is making storms more severe, requiring greater attention to maintenance, especially where drainage systems, if they exist at all, are undersized. Still, local governments allocate only a small fraction of the resources needed to accomplish that. The city of San Diego, for instance, devotes only enough funding each year to meet about 6 percent of the backlog of major maintenance.

Climate change has supercharged demands for greater equity, as weather events become more intense, overwhelming inadequate facilities. Historically disadvantaged and neglected communities are flexing newfound political muscles and insisting that infrastructure programs and climate action plans address their needs, in the name of environmental and economic justice. That means listening to the priorities voiced by local residents, taking seriously state requirements for environmental justice provisions in general plans, eliminating noxious land uses, and allocating sufficient resources for infrastructure to ameliorate damage from past underfunding.

Local governments are taking some steps to address these concerns, though with mixed results so far. The San Diego City Council approved a plan to shift a portion of impact fees from new development to older, needier areas, but that proposal is in litigation. The City Council is considering a special property tax to fund stormwater and water quality improvements, but public support for such a ballot measure has been tepid in the past. It remains to be seen what the county or other local cities will do, beyond immediate aid for flood victims. Meanwhile, federal funding is mainly targeting regional transportation and wastewater projects.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and other public officials recently decried the past discrimination largely responsible for the current crisis. The question now is what actions local and state governments will take to actually correct those conditions and make the affected communities more sustainable.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.