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To Some Environmentalists, Smart Growth is Dumb

Leon Kaye | Monday November 8th, 2010 | 2 Comments

They say California is a leader or trendsetter in many ways, and that is true to a certain extent.  Take NIMBYism, which Californians have mastered.  In California, if you moved here 20 years before anyone else, then the state is already too crowded, and too bad for others who move here for surf, sunshine, and (ahem) high-paying jobs while escaping the stodgy and frigid east coast.  The cure for NIMBYism is simply to sell one’s property at an inflated price and then move to Arizona, Oregon, and Montana, which often festers consternation among local folk who wished Californians and other outsiders would just stay put.NIMBYism at times results in “slow-growth” or initiatives that have emerged throughout the state over the past quarter century–or even longer.  The origins arguably lie in Santa Cruz, where a 1960s master plan to transform the seaside town into a city of 250,000 caused political upheaval, and transformed a Republican town to a liberal bastion that rests somewhere on the political spectrum between Austin and Santa Monica.  Santa Cruz has amazing coastal scenery, and community planning meetings offer fantastic people watching opportunities thanks to holdovers from the 1960s who attack plans for 10-story buildings with gusto.  After all, such plans are a sellout to developers that will build apartments that could interfere with the migratory paths of birds.  Nevertheless, many cities, with allies like the Sierra Club, have realized that a solution to California’s growth is the development of “brownfield” or “in-fill” areas.  If people are going to live in Berkeley, it is better to live in Berkeley instead of Tracy or Mendota for a bevy of reasons.

Now cities like Berkeley are aggressively pursuing smart-growth strategies.  Berkeley residents recently approved Measure R with 64% of the vote, which will allow the construction of several high rises (although a “high-rise” of 15 stories undoubtedly will earn snickers from people who live in Chicago, New York, and Philly, hereafter referred to as “real cities.”) Not everyone is happy with this approval, however.  The Sierra Club’s endorsement of Measure R has roiled some of its local members.  After all, some who opposed the measure do not want to live in an urban environment, an absurd sentiment if you live in a city that hosts a university of 36,000 students–a sliver of whom would love to stay because of Berkeley’s weather, location, food ghetto, Berkeley Bowl, Vik’s Chaat Corner, and an urban lifestyle.  Others see the measure as “colluding” with developers, forgetting the fact that if you are going to build a 5, 15, or 50 floor building, you need developers, not community activists.  Just as a description of something as “corporate” or “mainstream” does not make it wrong, the “developer” label does not make someone or a company evil.  As for the yearning for a country lifestyle, a rural existence in Berkeley has long gone the way of those old radio advertisements in which a cow mooed, “Farms . . . in Berkeley?”  Of course, in fairness, cows create methane, so maybe we should just stay in cities.

Then you have politicians like Jesse Arreguin, who won a Berkeley city council seat while losing his fight against Measure R.  Mr. Arreguin, who apparently believes Berkeley should welcome him and his friends but not newcomers, opposed Measure R, despite the plan’s call for environmentally friendly designs as well as open space.  Arreguin, who like many politicos love to say words like “sustainability” and “climate change” without understanding what they mean, claims that plans like Measure R do not solve climate change.  Of course Measure R does not solve climate change.  It does zero for climate change, unless you consider reduced commute times.  Measure R and similar initiatives encourage development around transit hubs and neighborhoods that are already developed.  It is better for companies, universities, and residents to live near their work for a host of reasons: reduced commute time, community, increased productivity, and an overall better quality of life that is a challenge when you commute from say, Fairfield to Berkeley.

Congratulations, Berkeley.  Now the score is the Sierra Club, Berkeley stakeholders, and yes, developers, ONE.  NIMBYs, Arreguin, and those who remember when the most populous state was once New York, not California, a big ZERO.


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  • Alan

    Measure R gave us a new euphemism thanks to Mr. Arreguin — he’s not an anti-growth NIMBY, he’s just in favor of “the right kind of growth.” Meaning as little as possible.

    The Sierra Club in the East Bay is still going through a transition — long-time members who have valiant fought corporate forces over pollution and despoliation are having trouble with the idea that in the urban environment we’re jointly responsible for building the right infrastructure, not just fighting “evil developers.” Fortunately the national Sierra Club is well ahead of “green” Berkeley on this transition.

  • josephbrin

    The new environmental book, Green Illusions, shows the importance of addressing smart growth as a first step in combating our broader energy and environmental challenges. The author argues that smart growth is a better project to pursue than new energy technologies, which have many negative side effects and limitations.
    This book also shows why so many Americans believe clean coal could exist.
    You can read reviews here: http://www.greenillusions.org