Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: New development patterns essential for a new economy

Leaders in all metropolitan areas must make decisions about their economic base and future growth patterns. Will they continue the late 20th century pattern of spread-out development that is hostile to pedestrians, bicyclists and transit? Or will they layer on top of this base a different pattern of growth that embraces the knowledge economy?

It is not a simple decision. Maintaining the 20th century economy, with its heavy reliance on mineral extraction, heavy industry and the automobile, certainly fulfills crucial needs and is less risky. Extraction-based economies in particular are booming. Federal and state governments massively subsidize these industries and the low-density patterns of development in direct and indirect ways. States following this economic and growth strategy, like Texas, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah, and Oklahoma, are all doing extremely well economically; even Michigan is today in the top fifth in job growth with the rebound of the auto industry.

Transitioning to the 21st century knowledge economy – industries such as high technology, biomedical, professional services, advanced manufacturing, etc. – is inherently more risky. These new industries have not been able to obtain the government subsidies. States with knowledge-based economies send far more money to the federal government than they receive in return, the opposite of the 20th century economy states. Knowledge-based economies offer the choice of development patterns, both the familiar drivable suburban and walkable urban development.

The political irony of this should not be lost. Red (Republican) states tend to be 20th century economies based upon drivable suburban development while getting generous federal funding. Blue (Democratic) states tend to provide the bulk of federal tax revenues and their 21st century industries are not as subsidized.

Transitioning to the knowledge economy, however, means that different infrastructure must be built. Rather than continual expansion of the freeway system, more rail and bus transit, bike lanes and pedestrian accessibility will be needed. Transportation spending should emphasize building these “alternative” transportation modes while focusing highway spending on maintenance of the current system.

For Sacramento, the choice is difficult. The region is in the center of the richest agricultural valley in the world. Food prices are booming and continued price growth seems reasonably assured. The region also has an economic foundation of state government to level out economic cycles. Finally, electronics manufacturing is your most robust export sector, benefiting from your location near the center of the technology world, Silicon Valley.

Your choice? Either stay in the 20th century economy or move more aggressively to the 21st century economy. There is no obvious answer to an outsider, like myself.

However, if you choose the 21st century knowledge economy, the “creative class” workers essential for it will need communities that are a mix of uses and easily walkable. The boom in office, retail and housing development south of Market Street in San Francisco is just one example of this trend.

And this is not just a matter of downtown Sacramento redeveloping into a more vibrant place, essential though this is. Experience throughout the country shows that healthy suburbs are essential, particularly suburbs with outstanding schools that will attract the creative class during certain parts of their lives.

Downtown Roseville is a great example of the urbanization of the suburbs. It is following the story of the 1985 classic movie, “Back to the Future,” and its downtown Hill Valley, a fictional Central Valley town. The movie depicts the history of downtown Roseville to a T: 1955 downtown Hill Valley is a vibrant walkable urban place around a glorious grass plaza in front of the courthouse. The 1985 downtown is a dump, homeless sleeping on benches, X-rated movie theaters and the plaza paved over for parking. However, the distant-future downtown is once again a vital walkable urban place and the plaza is a gathering spot with water features and a garden.

When was that distant future? 2015 – just when the Roseville City Plaza opens, taking the place of the former surface parking lot. I would suggest the opening night include an outdoor showing of “Back to the Future,” since it is Roseville’s story.

I’ve heard there is a myth being spread in Sacramento that walkable urban development (also referred to as smart growth) forces people into cities, ignoring the suburbs. That is nonsense. To build the 21st century economy, we need both cities and suburbs to create walkable urban places, probably using roughly 1 to 2 percent of the existing urbanized land. The rest of your drivable suburban places will stay just the way they are.

The question for Sacramento: If you choose to build a 21st century economy, will you offer the market both options? Or stick with the pattern of the last century?