California has felt the effects of the recession as much as or more than the rest of the country, but the economic downturn has offered one unintended gift: As building came to a halt, so did the conversion of prime agricultural land into housing developments.
According to a recent report of environmental indicators released by the Great Valley Center and UC Merced's Sierra Nevada Research Institute, less prime soil has become home to McMansions and other construction since the recession began. That gives local and regional governments the gift of time.
Combine time with motivation, in the form of federal and state grants used to create planning "tool kits" and conduct outreach and training, and we might well be able to adopt a new approach to land use, similar to the one established by Envision Utah. Because the Central Valley has seen a marked improvement in land-use and transportation planning in the past decade, it might find itself in a leadership role for the state.
That's not a role the Valley is accustomed to playing.
The national trend to create regional blueprints with a higher level of public participation than in the past has begun to take hold locally in part because of the rapid loss of farmland adjacent to urban areas, jeopardizing our economic engine.
Higher densities and mix of transit choices can be incorporated as city and county general plans are updated. In designing the blueprints, thousands of residents were asked how they want their communities to look and feel in the region they will share in the future as the state's inland grows faster than the coast and the nation.
From the mountains in the north part of the Central Valley to the oil derricks of the south, various regions launched blueprint efforts in the past decade.
The Sacramento region was first, in 2004, to adopt a set of guidelines for growth over the next four decades, establishing density ratios to absorb most of the increasing population in existing urban areas. Shasta Forward set the standard for smaller counties. Kern and Fresno added innovations of their own as part of the joint San Joaquin Valley blueprint.
There were bumps along the way, but on the whole, the lull in construction has been leveraged. We are seeing new levels of regional cooperation. People from groups that had never been at the table before were invited and they stepped up. Leaders from different cities, counties and regions are networking now, and even advocating together on issues such as flood control.
And public agencies that tended to go their own ways in planning reached out sometimes reluctantly to work across city limits and county battle lines to acknowledge that many of the challenges facing the Valley are connected to where and how we build homes and business space, and the roads, highways and trains that connect them.
In the six counties of the Sacramento area and the eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley, political leaders and senior planning managers realized they needed to focus on the role roads and highways play in the farmland economy of the Central Valley. The Rural-Urban Connections and Blueprint Integration projects brought new resources to planning for cities with fewer than 50,000 people and dispelled the notion that big city leaders wanted smaller communities to just dry up and blow away.
And while some counties in the Sacramento Valley didn't do blueprints and others in the north San Joaquin Valley did them poorly or late, enough counties produced them so that experts consulting for the state could obtain their own data and draft one California blueprint.
That created a big picture that has never been seen before.
But the key will be how these new blueprints are put to work at the local level, all the way down to neighborhoods.
Just as all politics are local, so is zoning.
Local planners and elected officials are doing a lot of work behind the scenes, including working as a region to access government funding to help make the blueprints a reality.
The economy is slowly improving, but we need to resolutely focus our attention and efforts on taking advantage of an unusual situation.
We need to honor this unexpected gift by adopting a new way of growing.