Terms and conditions: Our impact on Earth; its impact on us – Part 2: In excess – Sprawl

Suburbanization: One of the most successful growth and development schemes going; that is, until it wasn’t anymore. It has overstepped its bounds – literally!

Greg Dierkers, Erin Silsbe, Shayna Stott, Steve Winkelman and Mac Wubben of the Center for Clean Air Policy in “CCAP Transportation Emissions Guidebook – Part One: Land Use, Transit & Travel Demand Management” put it bluntly and precisely. They correctly concluded:

“Patterns of urban growth characteristic of post WWII North American development have created cities and regions that are centered upon and are dependent on the car to meet transportation needs. Located largely at the urban fringe, this pattern of suburban, or greenfield, development is typically dominated by housing-only enclaves consisting of single family homes with two-car garages and a hierarchical road system (with one way in and out). Here, land use functions are isolated (residential, commercial, employment), origins and destinations are farther apart, infrastructure design is oriented toward the automobile, and low population densities are not conducive to public transportation. With the automobile as the only realistic transportation mode for suburbanites in these sprawling communities, commuters are faced with increased driving distances and increased congestion. All told, this pattern of growth has resulted in deteriorating urban air quality and human health, increased emissions of greenhouse gases, limited transportation and housing choice, inefficient use of infrastructure, and communities that are less able to meet the needs of their residents.”

Hollywood, California sprawl 1922

In order for sprawl not only to have survived but to have spread the way it has, there had to be a supply of land in abundance. And, there was.

‘Homes on the range’

Sometimes one need look no farther than home to see what has been going on.

As of October 2012 in California’s San Joaquin Valley (where I live) roughly 7 million acres were farmed. Not just true in the San Joaquin Valley, but in California and elsewhere too, there is land that was once farmed that is farmed no more.

In “Lay of the land: Developed former California farmland not ‘priceless’,” it was pointed out that in California in 2007, the more than 25 million farmed acres was being lost at the rate of around one percent per year.

Meanwhile, in the March 2009 Vegetable Growers News article “San Joaquin Valley deals with development,” I stressed: “The overall challenge can be summarized like this: If growth continues at its current 2 percent-per-year rate, population in the San Joaquin Valley will double in 35 years. Without a planned and coordinated effort to effectively deal with that growth, meeting the needs of between 9.5 million and 12 million residents by 2050 will be difficult.”1

Moreover, in “Disappearing California Ag Land a ‘Growing’ Concern: ‘Losing the Farm’ Not the Best Option” at the California Progress Report, an Apr. 17, 2008 editorial, referenced is Don Stuart, Pacific Northwest States Director of the American Farmland Trust (AFT) whose contributed information is telling which, more or less, is this: Every year the state of Washington loses approximately 23,000 farmland acres to urban sprawl development around Seattle mostly.2

Incidentally, the boundary between the two dissimilar (agricultural/residential-commercial) land-use types, in the words of retired University of California Cooperative Extension Advisor for Madera County, Brent Holtz, is known as the “agricultural-urban interface”.3

Seeking solutions

In “Will California Reap Growth Rewards with the Sustainable Communities Strategies Initiative” on Oct. 7, 2012 also at the California Progress Report I opined: “Interestingly, if not astonishingly, in the late 1990s a contingent of San Joaquin Valley-based movers and shakers pooled their expertise to create A Landscape of Choice: Strategies for Improving Patterns of Community Growth, a comprehensive report that ‘issued the latest wake-up call to Fresno County, calling for more efficient, less auto-dependent communities that are more livable and conserve farmland,’ noted the American Farmland Trust in a December 2008 report.”

And, where, specifically, did this effort go? Sadly: nowhere. Why?

In commenting on this directly, I explained: “… lacking, apparently, was the ability to muster the political will necessary to institute effective change in Fresno County, in spite of such being called for in A Landscape of Choice in these terms: ‘Changing land use patterns to create compact and efficient growth; building stronger pedestrian-based neighborhoods and directing growth away from productive agricultural resources may seem like a daunting task. Nevertheless, the Fresno Growth Alternatives Alliance and its member organizations strongly believe that the community will benefit greatly from such change. In order to accomplish these objectives, we must create a constituency for change that recognizes the benefits of the planning principles contained in this report and that is committed to taking appropriate action.’”

The choice really is ours

In responding further, I added: “A 2012 report produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Move LA, a southern California-based smart growth and transportation partnership, called A Bold Plan for Sustainable California Communities: A Report on the Implementation of Senate Bill 375, points out the southern California, Sacramento and San Diego regions over the past year ‘have become the first three regions in America to adopt transportation plans specifically designed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.’ The premise is straightforward: ‘In each region, the processes of creating long range transportation and land use plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a state assigned target have brought unique challenges and successes. As intended by SB 375, each region created a tailored mix of land use decisions, transportation investments, and policies to achieve its target. These sustainable community strategies (SCSs) lay the foundation for smarter, more efficient growth and healthier communities, each of them offering lessons for other regions to follow.’

“In each region, the majority of citizens expressed preferences for residences located closer to work and shopping, and less time spent behind the wheel. Community planning in each of the aforesaid regions, ‘reflect these preferences while also reducing harmful air pollution, creating jobs, and saving people money.’ (Natural Resources Defense Council)

San Diego

“Eighteen state metro regions in all will eventually need to be in compliance.

“The key difference for the southern California, San Diego and Sacramento regions this time and with respect to SB 375 implementation and Sustainable Communities Strategies initiatives’ adoption in particular, is there is demonstrated progress.

Sprawl with no end in sight or a new development-day dawning?

From its “Paving Paradise: A New Perspective on California Farmland Conversion” study, meanwhile, the American Farmland Trust made this astute observation: “The trend in development efficiency is positive. … If this slow rate of improvement continues, another 2.1 million acres of California land will be urbanized by 2050.”4 But, at the same time the agricultural organization also recognized this: “If the state as a whole develops as efficiently as Sacramento County or the Bay Area did from 1990 to 2004, a million acres of California land could be saved within the next generation.”5 (Emphasis American Farmland Trust’s)

Time will tell if the Sustainable Communities Strategies approach works.

“Terms and conditions: Our impact on Earth; its impact on us – Part 1: It’s a jungle out there” here.

For more about the A Bold Plan for Sustainable California Communities: A Report on the Implementation of Senate Bill 375 report, check here and here.


  1. Alan Kandel, “San Joaquin Valley deals with development,” Vegetable Growers News, Mar. 2009, pp. 9, 17
  2. Dick Lehnert, “Washington Farmland Preservation: Washington state moves ahead on farmland preservation,” Spudman, Jan. 2008, pp. 36-37
  3. A reference in the article “San Joaquin Valley deals with development” published in the March 2009 Vegetable Growers News issue, p. 9
  4. Information from Paving Paradise: A New Perspective on California Farmland Conversion, © American Farmland Trust, p. 10. Used with permission
  5. Ibid. p. 12 © American Farmland Trust. Used with permission

To be continued.

Image (top): Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

This post was last revised on May 28, 2020 @ 1:00 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel