Wednesday, August 20, 2008
A California vacation last week got me thinking about … well, land use law, of course. Urbanists argue that legal restrictions on sprawl would foster development in the central city and encourage a high-density, walkable sense of community, in contrast to America’s longstanding desire for an auto-based culture. A problem with this argument is that it’s difficult to test.
But California, which has for long imposed some of the toughest land use laws in the nation, offers a proving ground. In much of California, especially in the hills and mountains that cover half the state, development is severely restricted by topography, a lack of water, and stringent land use laws, including those imposed for the purpose of conserving environmental resources. Northwest California offers a striking example. I noticed that even small cities that are not classic tourist towns –- places such as Sonoma’s Sebastopol and Mendocino’s Fort Bragg –- retain a good amount of their pre-sprawl-era commercial buildings (often attractive wooden commercial blocks) and a sense of walkable density. I could not help but conclude that the inability to sprawl has preserved and cultivated these downtowns.
By contrast, California’s wide-open Central Valley offers far fewer restrictions, as it is offers flat terrain, irrigated water systems, and traditional land use (agriculture and industry) that triggers less desire for environmental protection. And, in contrast to the distinct and fairly compact towns of the north, the Central Valley population along Route 99 spreads out in a largely undifferentiated and auto-dominated sprawl from Sacramento to Merced. Now, it must be conceded true that hard-working Modesto may never attract redwood-peeping tourists, as Fort Bragg (pictured above) is starting to do (although Modesto, like many of its nearby valley cities, touts itself as a “gateway to Yosemite”). But the California contrast does help prove that land use restrictions can get Americans out of their cars and can and do foster high-density downtowns.