Viewpoints

Sacramento, Valley cities need to meet their urban needs

The Golden 1 Center has helped bring in investment to downtown Sacramento.
The Golden 1 Center has helped bring in investment to downtown Sacramento. The Associated Press

Are you finally growing up, Sacramento?

I pose that question not to our state government but to the real Sacramento, the Capital Region. It’s a query that also should be aimed at the Central Valley’s other big urban areas.

The maturity of Fresno, Bakersfield or Stockton is not just a local question. The Valley persistently lags California as a whole in employment, access to health care and educational attainment. If California is going to make big gains, Valley cities must lead the way.

Unfortunately, this narrative, which should be conventional wisdom, still feels novel. That’s because the Valley still thinks of itself as agricultural. That’s understandable, given the region’s rural history and the outsized influence agriculture retains over land use and politics. But that influence obscures the 21st-century reality – most people in the Central Valley live in cities, the true economic engines of the region.

These cities are “small” only compared with the global mega-regions on the coast. More people live in the cities of Fresno and Sacramento than in the cities of Atlanta or Miami. And they have grown into places far larger and more complicated than the governments and infrastructure that once sustained them. One great underappreciated drama in California is the race of these cities to meet their urban needs, by adding cultural venues, revamping downtowns and developing new infrastructure.

Cities are in different stages of this process. The struggle in Fresno has been particularly dramatic. There is new life and housing in its downtown, a new bicycle and hiking trail will connect Fresno to Clovis, and a bus rapid transit system is being launched. Planning is underway to establish mixed-used zoning districts and to develop the neediest neighborhoods.

But the most promising – and puzzling – urban case is Sacramento.

The Capital Region’s advantages – the presence of state government, its proximity to the Bay Area – give it a more diverse economy than other Valley cities. The nine counties of the region together have 2.8 million residents, on par with the city of Chicago. The past decade has brought more than $1 billion in investment to Sacramento’s center. A sports arena opened last year, a widely celebrated triumph (shadowed by its financing, a risky parking bond).

Beyond downtown, the picture is as muddy as the Valley rivers. The city’s leadership class, heavy in real estate and government types, has a weakness for shiny projects that are supposed to attract outside visitors. Among their current ideas are building an aquarium – even though the ocean and Monterey’s aquarium are not far away – and expanding the struggling convention center.

Outside the city, the Capital Region lacks a clear identity, which makes it harder to address regional problems from housing to transit. (There’s not even consensus on how many counties – four? six? nine? – are part of the region). Sacramento County voted down a transportation sales tax in November. And the lack of job growth in the region deserves greater attention. The Brookings Institution ranks Sacramento 95th among the nation’s largest 100 metro regions in economic output per capita over the past 10 years.

Sacramento’s optimists say the region is making progress addressing issues from water to workforce development. And they point to Sacramento’s new mayor, Darrell Steinberg, a former legislative leader with deep contacts among the region’s overlapping governments. To the good, he has made decreasing homelessness a priority, addressing it in a regional way that should force Sacramento County to offer more mental health services. (To the bad, he likes the aquarium idea.)

Californians are understandably wary when big plans emerge from the Capitol. But we should root hard for the Capital Region. Our state will be much better off if Sacramento can fully launch itself.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square, which is hosting a free, public event, “Is the Central Valley Finally Embracing Its Urban Future?” on Feb. 15 at noon in Sacramento. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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