San Francisco Suburb Votes for Low-Carbon Community

If California has any hope of becoming a low-carbon economy, it must starting thinking urban rather than suburban. And that’s what the city of Newark voted to do, in approving a "trend setting" pedestrian community.

The city will convert 200 acres of vacant industrial land, largely  owned by chemical companies, into a model sustainable residential development.

The plan is for 2500 townhouses and apartments that will be walking distance from stores and schools. A reconstructed rail line will deliver commuters to Silicon Valley. 

"The way we developed in the last few decades is definitely not sustainable," Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, the largest metropolitan planning organization in the country, told Reuters.

"The future is going to be single-family homes in smaller lots, multi-family homes and a more urban style of living. We are going in a totally different direction now."

Although "smart growth" communities aren’t a new concept, they’ve been slow to take off in California. In fact, smart growth prevails in the current housing recovery, making it very different from previous ones.

The law motivating the Newark project is related to California’s landmark 2006 climate change legislation, AB32.

Under the law, the state must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050. California’s cap-and-trade program and its Renewable Portfolio Standard are both tied to AB32. So is another law, SB375, that requires the state’s 18 metropolitan planning authorities to help meet GHG reductions targets through integrated land use, housing and transportation policies.

"Going forward, state and federal transportation dollars can only be dedicated to projects that are consistent with the sustainable communities plan," Darrell Steinberg, California Senate President pro tem and author of SB375, told Reuters.

In April, Southern California passed a Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy that’s centered around public transit and walkable communities – that will guide the region through 2035. It goes beyond the state’s plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 

The high-tech business boom in the 1950s helped California become the world’s 9th largest economy, but it also turned the state’s highways into a parking lot far behind rush hour. That’s because the state’s population has doubled since then to nearly 38 million – projections suggest it might hit 50 million by 2050.

Planners project that 68% of new homes built between 2010- 2035 will be multifamily, and 32% will be single family. That’s a 180-degree reversal from past practices, reports Reuters.

Housing is instrumental in helping California meet its climate change targets; transportation accounts for 40% of its carbon emissions and commerical and residential buildings contribute more than 25%. 

Not everyone loves developments like the one proposed for Newark – some environmentalists would rather see the land turned back to nature while some homeowners want more space.

But a similar development in midtown Sacramento is attracting both young professionals and "empty nesters" whose children have left home.

"The big epiphany for me was I don’t think about traffic anymore," Byron Buck, who exchanged a five-bedroom home for a Sacramento loft, told Reuters. "That psychic energy of not having to think about that is huge."

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