With a new year ahead and the days growing longer, we can renew our sense of hope for the future. With many national politicians currently more interested in denying social and environmental problems than addressing them, hope may be seem elusive. However, in our complex democracy and system of federalism, state and local government can make policy and take action. Local governments, for example, are taking action to promote healthy, sustainable communities through shifting land use patterns.
Land use decisions have enormous influence on community development, economic activity, our impact on the environment and how we connect to each other and nature in our daily lives. I’m hopeful when local governments responsible for such decisions factor in these many impacts, recognize the problems with existing land use patterns and act boldly to shift these patterns. Two recent such decisions in the San Francisco Bay Area give me such hope.
The city of Mountain View approved a plan to build nearly 10,000 new homes on land that has largely been used for parking in a large business park area. It includes 20% housing for low-income residents, many acres of public parks, retail space and infrastructure for biking, walking and using transit. This will allow for residents to work, live and play locally; reducing traffic congestion in the region, providing opportunity for community building and benefitting the environment. We need development to look like this in the future. Plans for Mission Rock in San Francisco and the Diridon Station area in San Jose are other examples.
Further north, the Trust for Public Land, in partnership with Marin County, has bought the San Geronimo Golf Course to convert it to public open space. While golf courses can provide space for nature (Audubon International certifies golf courses that adequately provide sanctuary for wildlife) and recreation, this conversion opens up this space for many more people, returns the landscape to a more natural state including protection for endangered coho salmon and substantially reduces water use and runoff from fertilizers and herbicides.
Land use patterns are difficult to change. The complexity of local and state policy, resistance of the status quo and vested interests, and the need for coordinated effort and funding can deter change. Examples such as in Mountain View and Marin County, however, can demonstrate how bold action can take place to support healthy and sustainable communities.