Of the many raps on urban planning post-World War II, one of the biggest was that it was led by the head and not by the heart. Engineers made precise calculations that yielded efficient highways but not much by way of soul. Though that trend has largely been abandoned, the release of a new, ambitious study may usher in a new approach to empirically based planning. 

The Vision California project attempts to assess the stakes of different growth scenarios that may develop across California by 2050. Commissioned jointly by the California High Speed Rail Authority and the state Strategic Growth Council and created by the Berkeley planning firm of Calthorpe & Associates, the $1.5-million first phase of Vision California estimates dollar value of potential growth patterns – most notably, the compact development promoted by SB 375.

In its broadest strokes, Vision California's model suggests that, over the next 40 years, a deliberately compact development pattern will consume only 1,800 square miles of land instead of 5,400 and will save individual households up to $6,400 annually in 2050. It also compares a cumulative infrastructure investment of $183 billion versus one of more than double that amount under the status quo.

That is according to the most optimistic of the four growth scenarios that the report presents. Those scenarios range from a "business-as-usual" approach to a "green future," which assumes that a combination of policy interventions and trends have spurred compact development statewide. The report also predicts related outcomes such as greenhouse gas emissions, transportation costs per household, and residential energy use. It does not, however, estimate the cost of maintaining infrastructure or of operating transit.

These conclusions are similar to conclusions of similar regional studies done by Calthorpe and others in Portland, Salt Lake City, and other western metros over the past decade. These calculations come from Vision California's "Rapid Fire" modeling tool, a spreadsheet-based calculator that enables planners to plug in relevant data for their localities and calculate the costs associated with a range of possible land use decisions.

The Vision California model is intended to go beyond the regional boundaries of blueprint planning and instead provide information on statewide growth scenarios including, but not limited to, those that surround the stations of the state's proposed high speed rail network. In unveiling the model, planners essentially treated the entire state as a single scenario, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.

The project's ambitious scope may carry with it inherent uncertainties. (See sidebar "Vision California: Science or Value Judgment?")

"They are very, very difficult to model with any degree of certainty particularly over extended periods of time," said Richard Lyon, vice president for governmental affairs at the California Building Industry Association. "They certainly can provide kind of a pedagogic exercise....but in the end these systems modify themselves and they are in many cases incapable of being modeled with any degree." 

Despite the variables, Vision California and the Rapid Fire spreadsheet tool, however, are designed to inspired dialog among planning agencies and across regions. 

The partnership between HSRA and SCG arose a year-and-a-half ago, when HSRA had already commissioned Calthorpe to design a model to help guide development around potential stations on the state's proposed 600-mile high speed rail network. At the time, SCG was also interested in developing tools that localities could use in order to assess the value of collaborative and regional land use planning. 

"Vision California started off as more of a mode-centric -- in this case high speed rail effort -- but the same principle needed to be applied multimodal and across the geographic boundaries of the state," said Gregg Albright, Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy & Integration at the California Business, Transportation & Housing Agency. Albright is a member of SCG's multi-agency team. 

"Fifty years ago those [transportation models] weren't built to do what they're asked to do….they were built initially to design roadways," said Joe DiStefano, project lead. "We've set out to build a model that can hopefully see through some of the differences in the models and provide a common framework, if you will, for reviewing or assessing how varying regions and the state as a whole would perform under varying land use scenarios." 

The next generation of Rapid Fire modeling tool that the Vision California team will be developing over the next year or so will be map-based. It will allow planners to visualize the effects of different land use patterns as they appear in the built environment, rather than as a gross number on a spreadsheet. 

In many ways, the modeling suggests benefits that will accrue to localities as a result of efforts to implement AB 32 and SB 375. But the "green future" scenario would likely require the state, regions, and localities to go above and beyond the incentives and regulations that accompany those laws. 

"We're trying to contextualize what has become a climate change debate and hopefully informing a deeper understanding...that it's not just about climate change. It's about costs, it's about energy, it's about public health," said DiStefano. 

"SB 732 made it clear that the Strategic Growth Council needs to look for ways to provide information -- modeling, data -- to help local decision-making," said Albright, referring to the 2008 law that gave rise to the SGC. "What can we do to equip and empower localities to help them recognize they don't have to be fearful of these (policies) coming down from the state." 

Although the report largely confirms the "double-bottom-line" economic and environmental benefits that planners and environmentalists have long touted regarding smart growth, even the suggestion that a single model could capture all the complexities of regional land use strikes some as hubristic. 

San Diego County Supervisor and Air Resources Board Member Ron Roberts said shortly after the report's release in late June that ARB staff members were already citing its conclusions without offering much by way of context. 

"I thought that was a pretty preposterous number, and it turns out that that number is their expectation in the year 2050," said Roberts. "I thought for our staff to just throw it out there ...was misleading.  What you're going to save in 2050 just is not of much interest to me."

"I think when we draw figures like that it's an attempt to overhype the benefits, and that concerns me because I think ultimately that calls into question any legitimacy that there is for the concept," added Roberts. 

Moreover, even if the results of the Rapid Fire model are internally valid, their applicability to the real world remains hazy for some. 

Lyon, of the CBIA, said that the biggest variable that the model may not be able to capture is simply the preferences of California residents. Lyon said that many homeowners decide where to live primarily according to safety and decent schools – regardless of how much they could save by living in a green neighorhood.

"That's the challenge: to address issues of safety, schools, that's where they need to focus their time and attention," said Lyon. "Any notion that government or state government or modeling scenarios is going to somehow transform development patterns or convince people to move back to urban areas is fanciful."

The report's authors contend that the Rapid Fire model employs peer-reviewed assumptions and metrics regarding the dollar value of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, fuel, building energy, land consumption, and infrastructure. The goal, they say, is not to replace traditional fine-grain transportation models but rather to provide broad analyses. This would  allow planners to compare the outcomes of different scenarios at almost any scale, from the neighborhood to the region. 

Despite the dramatic difference in developed land between the two scenarios, DiStefano cautioned that "we would not become Manhattan." He suggested that the "green future" scenario might instead resemble the mixed use community of 10,000 residents that has been developed on 4,700 acres at the site of Denver's former Stapleton Airport. 

"For the most part the greener scenarios….the majority of development does not occur in tall multifamily developments," said DiStefano. "The benefits that we see are simply in a more compact version of what people are used to today….organized in a way that allows people to walk and bike, and take shorter drives." 

Though the results of this initial would seem to provide unequivocal endorsement of compact planning and heightened investment in transit and other alternative forms of transportation, its authors are quick to note that the report and any subsequent calculations using the Rapid Fire model are intended solely to provide local officials with food for thought and perhaps reveal costs and benefits that were heretofore invisible. They are not intended to drive policy in a particular direction.

"I don't think it stands for any particular way of making decisions or looking at decisions," said Bryant. "It's a tool that will develop that will allow …planners and anyone interested to plug in their own information and their own assumptions and draw their own conclusions on decisions they're making."

Vision California indicates that the public sector would be plugging in a tremendous amount of money to facilitate more compact development. However, it also implies that the relative benefits of transit investments – as well as savings in fuel and other auto-oriented costs – far outweigh those of, for instance, highways.

"It's not an issue of cost. You're going to grow one way or another. If you grow in this way…you're not changing how we are; you're changing how you're going to grow," said Leavitt. "That would be there either way. In order to grow you either build additional freeways or you build in ways that reduce subdivisions." 

Leavitt said, however, that realizing the green future scenario does not necessarily depend on build-out of the estimated $40 billion high speed rail system. 

Ultimately, the benefits of even the relatively modest investment in Vision California may be elusive. Whatever dollar value the model assigns to compact development, ultimately this may be one trend that has already taken root. 

"I don't think we need Vision California telling us about smart growth," said Roberts, the San Diego supervisor. "I think the local communities get it with respect to smart growth – it's apple pie and motherhood. There aren't that many people who are proponents of stupid growth."  

Contacts & Resources: 

Vision California Official Site 

R. Gregg Albright, Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy & Integration; Business, Transportation & Housing Agency, (916) 324-7502 

Cynthia Bryant, Chair, Strategic Growth Council; Director, Office of Planning & Research, (916) 322-2318

Joe DiStefano, Project Lead, Calthorpe & Assoc., (510) 548-6800 

Dan Leavitt, Deputy Director, California High Speed Rail Authority, (916) 324-1541

Richard Lyon, Vice President for Governmental Affairs, California Building Industry Association, (916) 443-7933

Ron Roberts, Supervisor, San Diego County, (619) 531-5544