Charles Buki is the director of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Training Institute in Washington, D.C. The institute was created by Congress in 1978 to revitalize older, distressed communities through a network of local nonprofits. Buki is a former Loeb Fellow in advanced environmental studies at Harvard University. He has written and lectured widely on neighborhood revitalization and neighborhood dynamics, their interrelationship with the environment and implications for social equity. In May, Buki spoke during the Great Valley Center's annual conference about material wealth and cultural poverty. He defined "material wealth" as the ability to make choices, and "cultural poverty" as the opposite. Thus, the growth of wealthy suburban areas cannot occur without inner city problems. Buki said the tenor of a place is best measured by studying who moves in, and who moves out. Buki was sharply critical of development patterns in the Central Valley. Decrying the sameness of development across the United States, Buki urged people to show respect for the land and climate. CP&DR: During your presentation, you used the term "coast to coast placelessness." What do you mean? Buki: It's virtually impossible to find unique qualities anywhere you go that are not replicated elsewhere. As you sit here in this Radisson [Hotel] and look out at the lake, it's impossible to tell if you're in Sacramento or Denver or Dallas. In fact, I could drive all the way into Sacramento and never know that I'm in Sacramento and not in Denver. CP&DR: Why has this happened? Buki: It's economically efficient in the short run. Do you know what Applebee's is? Or Benigan's? They are restaurants that are all designed with the same footprint … because they want an economy of scale. Your burger is 79 cents because the McDonalds cost $179,000 to build, rather than $279,000 it would cost to design and build a unique building that would be much nicer. The conundrum is, is it worth the price? Would you be willing to pay $6 for a sandwich at Subway, instead of $5? Economics tells us the answer is probably not. CP&DR: How do we get beyond this approach? Buki: You have to be able to convince people that long-term prosperity has a different paradigm than short-term economic gain. Most folks in that audience [at the Great Valley Center conference] probably agreed with what I had to say. But they are still going to eat at McDonalds in the next week. You have to live your values. If you eat steak, you have to understand that there are consequences. I choose to eat steak and I understand the effects of that decision. You might have a 22-year-old in Davis who is a vegetarian, but he still wears leather shoes. We have to require people to change how they live to reflect their values. CP&DR: You said you flew over the Valley in a small plane. What struck you about what you saw? Buki: There is a mistake that is being made. Your asset is land, but you are trading it for townhouses and subdivisions. You have a "servants quarters" mentality, providing houses for people with jobs in the Bay Area. If you are going to lose farmland, you should lose it to a use of better and higher value. CP&DR: You mean trade farmland for economic development? Buki: Right. There is a very limited value in townhouses. CP&DR: What choices do Valley leaders need to make? Buki: You have to have planning. It's obvious you have no planning. CP&DR: Is that a problem elsewhere in the country, too? Buki: Almost every place in the country is making the same mistakes. CP&DR: These are strong sentiments. I'm sure you give talks elsewhere. What are people's reactions? Buki: Planners and designers usually react badly to what I have to say. Most planners and designers believe you can plan your way out of problems. They don't recognize the costs that are associated with that approach. They want to be all-important and all-manipulating. CP&DR: Who is your most receptive audience? Buki: Residents. People wear different hats — fireman, police officer, employee. It's when they wear their hat as a family member that they are most receptive. Realtors make money on housing developments. But when they take off their realtor hat and put on their family hat, they find that everything they are doing conflicts with their values as family members. It's a longer lecture, and it pushes people more. I sensed this audience was not ready to be pushed that far. CP&DR: What does the Valley need most? Buki: Make the Valley competitive. Make it be able to compete for investments. Right now, it's a very weak economy. The Valley essentially attracts pawn shops, so it doesn't recycle its capital. The Valley needs to attract a different type of investor, which it won't do until it diversifies its economy from strictly ag, to ag plus technology. That means farmers will have to give up some of their land. But they are already giving it up to housing developments. They need to give it up for higher economic value. Managing Editor Paul Shigley interview Charles Buki during the Great Valley Center's annual conference in Sacramento.