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How California's Planning System Is Changing -- Or Not

William Fulton on
Jun 7, 2022

California in the 2020s is a mature urban beast: expensive, crowded, running out of land, and -- at least for the moment – losing population. But the California planning system is – to some extent still stuck in the growing suburban state of the 1980s. It’s focused on growth management, impact fees, subdivision approvals, and – thanks to the California Environmental Quality Act – making sure that bad things don’t happen.

In the past, I have always assumed that at some point this system would be comprehensively overhauled to reflect California’s new urban reality. But over the past year, as I have revised Guide to California Planning for the sixth time in the last 30 years, I have come to realize that this is never going to happen. Yes, the Legislature wants to make significant changes on certain issues – housing in particular, but also, for example, CEQA as a result of the Berkeley enrollment case. But no one in Sacramento sees any percentage in a comprehensive overhaul.

The Sixth Edition of Guide to California Planning is now available as an e-book. You can buy it here. (The printed edition will be available later this year.) And, like most previous editions, it reflects the tension that exists between the urban state we have today and the suburban-era planning system that emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Greenfield development still occurs on the urban fringe, especially in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire—two regions that could be considered the new suburban frontier. But in most parts of the state, the nature of urban growth has changed dramatically since this book was first published in 1991. The old suburban frontiers like Orange County and Silicon Valley have matured into urban areas—diverse, thriving, and running out of land. Redevelopment, infill, high-density, mixed use, transit-oriented, sustainable—these are the phrases that dominate California planning today,

and they reflect the state’s changing circumstances. California today is a mature, expensive, diverse, crowded urban place.

Yet the fundamental structure of the planning system described in this book remains largely unchanged from the 1960s and ’70s, when it was created and put into place. The system still assumes, by and large, that California is suburban, and that growth is achieved by converting raw land into the first generation of suburban housing tracts, shopping centers and business parks. In the past 20 years, the system has inched toward today’s urban reality, but only with great difficulty.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, we are faced with the task of adapting a cumbersome structure oriented toward suburbia so that we may cope with a very different society. Regulating the subdivision of land will, no doubt, remain an important activity. But over time, the buildout scenario will become relatively less important compared with the question of what happens when a supposedly built-out neighborhood grows and changes in ways the original planners never anticipated.

In recent times, we have started to glimpse California’s volatile, urban-oriented future. We see it in places like downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Diego, both of which have started to become truly bustling, big-city downtowns full of jobs, culture, public transit and, most crucially, residents. We see it in inner-ring suburbs such as Pasadena and Redwood City, which are increasingly self-contained cities where virtually all new housing is in the form of condominiums, townhouses and apartments. We see it in cities like Sacramento, Berkeley, and Oakland, which are in the process of abolishing single-family zoning altogether. We see it in the long-range regional plans that no longer expect the metropolitan bubble to grow outward in a substantial way.

Although planners are participants in this evolution, the technical tools available to them remain oriented toward measuring and regulating the first generation of a community’s growth. This book was originally written at the beginning of the 1990s, when the era of infill development was just beginning, and it is hard to know the best way even to revise this book to address the issues of a more urban California. The state legislature passes laws that encourage the development of compact communities in existing urban areas with jobs and transit – and, increasingly, laws that encourage or mandate more housing production – while at the same time the state kills redevelopment, suspends funding for transit operations, and imposes environmental regulations that favor low-density development. It’s as if California wants to embrace its urban future, but is scared to leave behind the familiar suburban past.

Operating within this tension is not easy for California’s planners. And, unfortunately, they get limited guidance from the state. The Governor’s Office of Planning & Research is supposed to provide strong guidance on how to navigate the system, but OPR has always been subject to the political whims of the whoever the current governor is and can’t always be counted on to do the job. (Although the Planning & Community Development unit, under the able leadership of Deputy Director Erik de Kok, is increasingly providing detailed guidance on climate change, wildfires, and other relevant topics. Erik was invaluable to me in preparing the new edition.) But I am hopeful that the new edition of Guide to California Planning will continue to help planners in California navigate the increasingly urban thicket.

Again, you can buy the e-edition here and the print edition will be available later this year – stay tuned to CP&DR about when!



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