A smart policy is only as good as the elected leaders willing to stand up for it. That’s the main takeaway from a new study of the Sacramento Region Blueprint – an ambitious “smart growth” plan that won national acclaim.
The study, published Wednesday in the prestigious Journal of the American Planning Association, says that the voluntary 2004 plan didn’t stop suburban sprawl because local officials with power over land use didn’t always follow the Blueprint’s principles. Those principles included denser development inside cities and near transit stops to get people out of their cars and onto their feet and bicycles.
“Just signing on to a regional plan doesn’t translate into appropriate actions by local governments, overcoming local resistance and self-interest,” the University of Illinois researchers said, offering the Blueprint as a cautionary tale for similar efforts around the country.
A prime and unfortunate example is Cordova Hills, the 2,700-acre project on open land east of Rancho Cordova that Sacramento County supervisors approved in January 2013. To no avail, The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board urged supervisors to reject the proposal, pointing out that it contradicted the Blueprint.
Mike McKeever, head of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which spearheaded the Blueprint effort, also opposed Cordova Hills. While he agrees the region needs more infill development, he argues that the study’s authors sold Blueprint woefully short. He and other supporters point to notable successes in Davis (the Cannery), Sacramento (McKinley Village), the West Sacramento riverfront and elsewhere.
And McKeever says it’s way too early to judge a plan that goes until 2050, especially since the study looked at the region’s growth while it was skewed by the housing boom in the early 2000s, then the 2007 crash that halted development.
In the real world, it takes time for projects to happen. For example, researchers looking at the R Street corridor in Sacramento a few years back would say it was an unmitigated failure. But the decisions made by the City Council are now paying off in the bustling arts, retail and residential district.
While the Blueprint may not yet have had the on-the-ground impact that some backers wanted, it surely helped stop some bad development. The plan also encouraged regional cooperation that had been sorely lacking, and changed how many officials think about growth.
For the Blueprint to ultimately succeed, however, its champions need to continue holding elected officials accountable for following through. So do voters. With climate change and the drought, the Blueprint’s philosophy is more important than ever.