Although there are many tactics used to control growth, ultimately, there is only one measure of importance in protecting farmland: efficient urban land use. In examining four communities in the Central Valley, we found large disparities in land use efficiency.
Planners and researches often measure efficiency based on housing units built per acre of land. However, this statistic often misleads, as housing characteristics vary from market to market. What makes the most sense when determining the level of land use efficiency, is to look at the number of additional residents housed per converted acre of farmland.
To evaluate the rates at which cities are converting farmland to urban uses, we will use four Central Valley cities as examples: Modesto (in Stanislaus County), Merced (in Merced County), Davis and Woodland (both in Yolo County). We chose these cities because each represents a distinguishable urban area of growth surrounded by farmland. While many cities have an option of what type of land to develop, these cities have little choice; virtually all of their converted land comes from farmland.
The study areas represent not just the incorporated cities, but also the urban clusters in and around these cities. Although it varies from place to place, much of the growth and land use conversion happens beyond the city boundaries. We used census tracts to define the study regions, two of which are shown in the map to the right. Population data for each study are shown in table 1-1, while land use conversion data (in acres) are shown in table 1-2.
Looking at the two datasets together yields the following results:
* Modesto is adding 13 people per converted acre.
* Woodland is adding 10.57 people per converted acre.
* Merced is adding 8.4 people per converted acre.
* Davis is adding 7.25 people per converted acre.
At first glance, it is surprising that Davis — known for its progressive planning policies and work in farmland preservation — would make the least efficient use of converted agricultural land. Additionally, Davis's growth rate during the past ten years (25%) is the greatest of the four. Woodland, which lies only a few miles north of Davis, is adding more than three people per urbanized acre more than Davis. The difference here is likely explained by the difference in real estate markets. Davis has built high-end homes in subdivisions with large lots and open space requirements, while Woodland provides more mid-range and starter homes for Sacramento commuters.
Merced is the poorest community of the four and has been hit hard by the closing of the Castle Air Force Base in 1995. Merced lacks the large development projects more common in the other cities, and has little in the way of growth control measures. It will be interesting to see what kind of effect the new University of California campus planned a couple miles east of town (see CP&DR Public Development, April 2001; Environment Watch, June 1999) will have on these numbers in the future.
Modesto is, by a fair measure, the most "efficient" of the four. This efficiency can be seen in the large housing subdivisions of northern Modesto, which provide single-family homes on lots that are smaller than usual in the Central Valley. With its proximity to Bay Area job centers, Modesto's real estate market is strong, and the city has implemented some growth measures that keep lot sizes relatively small and developments clustered close together.
This methodology could easily be applied to many other California cities and regions to help paint a more complete picture of farmland conversion rates throughout the state. Also, the methodology may be used in conjunction with population projections to predict the future rate of farmland conversion. Projections indicate that growth in California is not likely to slow anytime soon, and that much of this growth could occur in the Central Valley, making farmland conversion an issue of increasing concern.
Erik Kancler is a research associate at Solimar Research Group.
Cities and counties are charged with the responsibility of developing not only communities in which people live and work, but also with protecting the health of the surrounding natural environment and agricultural lands.
To achieve balance between these core values, advocacy groups and government agencies alike have taken interest in understanding the available supply of land and the capacity for planned growth in their regions.
As California's population continues to grow, portions of the state are undergoing the process of urbanization. Although it might appear simple to determine what land is urban and what is not, different interpretations of "urban" can complicate discussions of farmland preservation, development patterns, placement of infrastructure and other issues.
As the new Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities (AHSC) grant program neared its October 31 public comment deadline, the program was showing a more definite sense of institutional purpose, focused on promoting dense transit-oriented urban streetscapes.
The right combination of zoning changes and decreased parking requirements can make infill projects feasible in some of the state's most urban settings. That is the conclusion of Solimar Research Group, which continues to investigate land use options for crowded urban areas.
The right combination of zoning changes and decreased parking requirements can make infill projects feasible in some of the state's most urban settings. That is the conclusion of Solimar Research Group, which continues to investigate land use options for crowded urban areas. >>read more
The only way to squeeze a generation's worth of growth into existing urban areas plus 2% more land is with a heavy reliance on infill development. With the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) beginning to finesse its density-driven, "2% Strategy" growth vision from policy into action, Solimar Research Group is producing information of use to those planning and executing infill development. >>read more
A thorough study of the San Diego Association of Governments by the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) suggests that the organization has taken regional planning as far as possible, and more regionalism will require a change in governance and economics. >>read more
Interest in smart growth varies by state and region, but many communities located in disparate parts of the country, whether or not they are growing rapidly, want to implement at least some aspects of smart growth. And
Infill development is increasingly the best — or only — option for landlocked and built-out cities to add housing. However, estimating where and how much infill housing could realistically be developed are challenges.
Since the mid-1990s, most new market-rate housing in California has been of the single-family detached (SFD) variety. Under traditional assumptions, these units should be generating school-age children at a predictable rate — because they would be occupied by families with a predictable number of children. But when single-family homes represent the only housing being built, those assumptions might go out the window. All types of households might occupy the new houses. And that r
As suburban-era cities have become "land poor," both planners and developers have advocated the recycling of underutilized commercial property for high-density housing. In particular, this solution has been under discussion throughout California and especially in Los Angeles, where housing production has been low and the supply of available raw land is dwindling.
Two generations of Americans are likely to influence local planning, development, and economic activity in many ways during the coming 10 to 20 years: the retiring Baby Boom and the soon-to-be-working Echo Boom.