A Realizable Smart Growth Vision

by Rick Cole


The Planning Report, Los Angeles CA, Dec/Jan 2005

Rick Cole, currently the City Manager of Ventura, has been for years a leading Southern California voice for good government and planning. Rick has been City Manager of Azusa, and before that served as Mayor of Pasadena. TPR is pleased to publish excerpts from a recent speech he delivered in November as part of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development’s Urban Growth Seminar lecture series, titled “Smart Growth in Southern California: How Pasadena Made It Happen; How Ventura Will Make It Happen.”


I want to start with a disclaimer. This is not about planning. This is not about architecture. This is about vision. I am in awe of the kind of people who understand the planning and the architectural elements that go into smart growth. But the reality is we’re not going to get smart growth in Southern California (or anywhere else) until there is an alternative vision of smart growth that is as compelling as the suburban vision that has animated public policy and popular imagination since World War II.

I am convinced that the places that offer that vision, that alternative model, will change the world. Because the stakes are not about Southern California. In Southern California, there are seven parking spaces for every car, and there are more cars than there are registered drivers. This is a problem. But in China, when they end up with more cars than registered drivers – if they follow our pattern of development and put seven parking spaces for every car, that’s eight billion parking spaces. That’s not a problem; that is an ecological and social catastrophe. If we cannot fix the way we live and build in Southern California, the mother of sprawl, we will be responsible for a worldwide economic meltdown. So we have an opportunity and a responsibility. And I think we can change the world one city at a time.

…What happened [when Pasadena collaborated on a new General Plan in 1992] was little short of miraculous, because we stopped asking the question, “Should we grow?” which is a question that bedevils all of Southern California. It turns out that “Should we grow?” is a really stupid question, because we’ve been growing for 100 years and no one has figured out how to stop growth. Instead, when we shifted the question from whether we should grow to “How we should grow?” and “Where we should grow?” two things happened. One, a lot of the polarizations literally melted like snow in the spring. Second, a lot of the people who had been ready to strangle each other suddenly found themselves fast friends. The people all agreed that growth ought to happen in the places where growth would benefit neighborhoods that were either worn out through disinvestment or neighborhoods that had infrastructure capacity and vacant land, and not in low-density, healthy, intact neighborhoods. Once we figured out the “where,” then the “how” was something we now call “smart growth.”

…You can’t beat sprawl without an alternative vision. In Pasadena, the alternative vision was called “Imagine a Greater City.” The seven principles were written specifically so that people could understand them. Literally these 85 words that articulate the seven principles were the words that people voted on. The ballot said: “Shall the voters of the City of Pasadena adopt a new General Plan, based upon the following seven principles?” The majority of the citizens of Pasadena checked “yes” to these seven principles at the November 1992 election – the highest voter turnout until this last November.

…The lessons from Pasadena that apply to Ventura and other communities begin with asking the right questions. It’s not copying Pasadena’s plan, nor even the seven principles. Not every place wants to have a downtown like Old Pasadena. Some places want to be towns, some places want to be cities, and some places need to be metropolises. This is something about New Urbanism that gets really mangled by proponents and opponents alike. Opponents particularly seize on the claim: “New Urbanism is all about higher density!” “It’s all about one way of doing things!” It’s not. Smart growth is about choices. It’s about appropriate choices. There’s a place in the polycentric fabric of Southern California for a variety of places – for towns, for regional centers, and for the metropolitan center of Los Angeles. And Pasadena knows its place. It is to be the Paris of the West San Gabriel Valley.

…Here’s the problem: We keep trying to do smart growth projects in a “dumb growth” landscape. And we wonder why they don’t work. It’s like trying to run Microsoft Word on an Apple computer. We get all these error messages, and it’s really frustrating. And yet, we keep trying to do smart growth projects. Instead, we have to establish a new operating system…New Urbanism. It’s an integrated approach to landscape. It’s made up, not of projects, but of streets and corridors and neighborhoods and districts. It’s a comprehensive alternative to the suburban sprawl model. It works. But you can’t just take pieces of it and make it work. You have to replace the auto-oriented suburban model we have now with a new operating system.

…What are the key elements of smart growth in Ventura? The battle is over when it comes to deciding whether we’re going to pave over the farmlands, pave over the hillsides, or pave over the greenbelts. The voters have decided: we’re not going to do it. That means, we either grow smart or we don’t grow at all. It’s that simple. And “where” we’re going to grow smart is on our Westside and in Midtown and Downtown. The Westside is an older urban area that cries out for revitalization. Midtown has a strong urban grid of stable neighborhoods, but with really ugly strip corridors. Downtown has come back strongly in recent years. Everyone agrees these are the right places to grow.

There is beginning to be consensus that says we’ve got these corridors, these long strip streets that have an old Burger King, and a used car lot, and a vacant lot, and a little tiny office building, and a strip of one-story retail stores. That all needs to be replaced with handsome boulevard housing. There’s a crying need for workforce housing. That will be tough at first, because there are neighbors to those corridors, and they will think that it’s more dumb growth. But if we show it can be done right and we do it right a few times, it will actually spread very rapidly.

In Ventura, an essential element of smart growth is “green” building. It’s not enough to just do growth in the right place, but to do growth that is environmentally sustainable. That’s particularly true in existing suburban areas. The real battleground at the moment is traditional neighborhood design. Again, as in Pasadena, it’s critically important to respect the history of what’s already there. We learned how to build cities for 4000 years of human history, and then in 1945 we forgot, and we went through 50 years of amnesia, and listening to false prophets. We have got to relearn some of the basic ways in which cities were built. That does not mean that there’s no place for modern architecture, or for new design. But it simply means that human beings still need doors, they still like windows, they still walk.

…A critical piece of New Urbanism is that there’s no such thing as “one size fits all.” You don’t want to put a skyscraper next to low-density residential. You don’t want to put low-density residential in the middle of a downtown. There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place. And that has all kinds of beneficent outcomes… Again, you can’t just do projects that are called “smart growth” where you paint a bike lane and proclaim: “You have the opportunity to ride a bike.” You have to make neighborhoods and cities bike-friendly again, and people-friendly again, and transit-friendly again.

For those of us who advocate smart growth, the most important problem is that everything we believe in is illegal in 50 states. I want to make this clear: It’s illegal to do smart growth. It’s illegal in every city in California except Azusa, which last year unanimously passed a smart growth General Plan. All this stuff has to be jammed through by exception, by variance, by creativity, by pounding on developers, by incredibly brilliant and tenacious developers who try to move things through. It’s illegal. And the only way to fix that is to repeal the laws that make it illegal.

I know I sometimes sound like sort of a desperate guy in the 12th hour of a filibuster. “You’re talking about repealing zoning? What planet are you from?” I’m from the planet Earth. And for the last 50 years we’ve been taken over by aliens: people who don’t understand how to build for people. The idea that instead of walking a block to get a loaf of bread, you should have to drive three miles to get a loaf of bread is a fundamentally alien idea. We have to change the codes. We have to abolish the zoning strictures that make it illegal to put natural human activities in close proximity.

You know, we have this weird new phrase, “mixed use.” It’s like “horseless carriage.” Remember when cars first got started, nobody had a word for cars, so they called them “horseless carriages.” Well, it’s the same with “mixed-use development.” Do any of you live in a house or an apartment? Those would be called “mixed-room development.” But in the world of zoning, the bathroom would be six blocks away. The bedroom would be on the other side of the freeway, because you wouldn’t want the bedroom close to the kitchen, because they might rub off on each other. And you wouldn’t want to have high-income bedrooms next to low-income bedrooms. So the kids would have to sleep somewhere else, because they don’t make as much money as you do.

The phrase “mixed use” is an exotic, weird thing – yet that’s the way human beings have lived since we started building cities. “Mixed use” is redundant. “Segregated use” is the problem. But that’s what is legal, what’s required, in 50 states. Instead of legalizing mixed use, we need to abolish the zoning codes that make mixed use the exception. It should be the rule.

Now, there are a number of developers here. And my message is very simple: it is the responsibility of the local community to set quality rules. We need to figure out what we want, and offer developers a clear code on what that looks like. There ought to be one door to City Hall, and there ought to be a sign next to the door: “This is what is allowed.” If you look at our code and you want to build it, then by all means, come on in and we’ll give you a permit. It shouldn’t take years. It should take six months. If you want to build quality, you should get a permit promptly. If you aren’t interested in quality, you should have to wait forever. You should never get a permit. Even if you lobby or go to lunch with people or make campaign contributions or schmooze with neighbors, you will never get a cruddy project through, because cruddy projects should be against the law.

…2500 years ago, the original people who invented democracy and built pretty cool cities understood that making great places is everybody’s job. It’s not a planner’s job or a politician’s job or an administrator’s job or an architect’s job. It’s a citizen’s job to build great places. It’s everybody’s job. And when you became a citizen of Athens, you had to swear that you were going to leave the place better and more beautiful than you found it. I think that’s the basis of democracy. I think that’s the basis of building cool cities. And I think that’s the basis of saving China from building 8 billion parking spaces.



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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Sprawl and Suburbia, Visioning

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