A Newsletter about California Water, Land, and People


Urban Growth Machines

"Unlike ancient Athens or Rome, contemporary Brasilia, or some of the new settlements of welfare-state Europe or China, nobody planned the American cities to achieve some larger social purpose. The grid streets of Chicago or New York, the scattered urban nuclei of Los Angeles, did not arise from some notion that within such a place the people would be happy or that a more perfect citizen would emerge. The American metropolis is not a deliberate social experiement or aesthetic expression. It is the coincidental outcome of the capitalist market process - where land is merely a commodity to be bought, sold, and exploited like any other. American cities have been merely arenas within which money could be made and the land of the city itself has become a part of the money-making process. Thus, urban spatial arrangements - who will live where, what will be made where, how far x will be from y - all these socially crucial aspects of life have followed from the needs of individual entrepreneurs to make money."

- Harvey Molotch, "The Urban Growth Machine," 1979

Places are places, familiar or strange, welcoming or exclusive; but they are also commodities, bought and sold in markets, and looked upon as opportunities for investment and sources of profit (or, "economic rent" to an urban economist). California is no exception to these facts. In essence, places in California (as elsewhere) have their uses, and they also have their prices.

Large suburban homes in Brentwood, eastern Contra Costa County, May 1999. Photo by Tim Stroshane.

The competition for land is often characterized as reflecting population pressures, but such portrayals ignore and devalue the roles played by developers and financiers in "getting there first" to stimulate population growth. Such growth is stimulated by the process of capital investment: in new office and industrial buildings, new housing, new jobs.

Politically, the easiest places for capital investment in urban development in California (as anywhere else in the U.S.) is on farmland or other undeveloped privately-owned open space. Such lands have few existing residents, people who would vote, attend public meetings to protest development plans, or advocate for protection of wildlife habitat or soil resources or water quality.

Since the end of World War II in California sprawling urban development has characterized the growth of California's cities. Sprawl is a vague term, but we tend to know it when we see this kind of development: large single-family homes with two- or three-car garages on anything from a third of an acre to five acres per unit. Such residential neighborhoods are often linked by 4- or 6-lane boulevards to freeways. If you want to go somewhere as a resident of such a place, you must drive, whether to work, play, school, or what have you.

While Los Angeles and its region was the first area of California to go down this path. But no less a pattern of development took hold in San Jose, in Contra Costa, San Mateo, and eastern Alameda counties during the 1950s and 1960s. As residents in central cities of the Bay Area, for example, began rejecting new developments in the 1970s, and new freeways began ringing the outer Bay Area, suburbanization sprawled outward.

Our present tax and legal systems - combined with a cultural bias for American Dream landscapes, and our love of automobiles - help create sprawl.

With the force of law, local zoning ordinance requirements become blueprints supporting auto-heavy, low-density land uses. New development must be conveniently accessible to cars, with parking spaces required; and must have limits on a building's overall height, square footage, and setback from lot lines adjacent to other buildings.

"We have a fiscal system that rewards cities for looking for industry and businesses and stores and penalizes them for taking [creating] housing," observes John Landis, a professor of city planning at the University of California at Berkeley.

Many cities see certain kinds of development to boost tax revenue, while limiting permits for affordable housing and outlays for mandated public services such as police, fire, recreation services and schools. It costs cities more to serve residents than it does to serve people who are only visiting (such as employees that live out-of-town and are only in town part-time). Cities court Wal-Marts and auto malls because the prodigious sales tax revenues from these land uses far outweigh the costs cities incur by having them; these developments are used to provide services elsewhere in town.

In fact, low-income (often multi-cultural) neighborhoods are often viewed as a double burden by local officials: since they often have higher density housing, there is low property-tax revenue per unit or per capita; as a result, the taxes gleaned from these neighborhoods fail to keep up with demands for municipal services there.

Proposition 13, passed by California voters in 1978, has compounded the problem. Even in good years, city revenue growth from property taxes (to which Prop 13 applies) falls behind both real estate values and inflation, eroding the local property tax base, including those of newer residential subdivisions. This occurs because Prop 13 caps growth in property tax revenue at 2 percent per year (inflation has been running historically at an average of 2 to 3 percent per year). Cities and counties compete for new tax base to replace eroding revenues; meanwhile, low-density zoning spreads new sprawl thinly across our freeway-laced landscape.

SPILLWAY covers these issues, most recently focusing on the Monterey Agreement, which frees up State Water Project water for urban development in southern California, the Newhall Ranch development near Santa Clarita, and Diablo Grande near Modesto in the northern San Joaquin Valley (see Back Issues, below).

New sprawling communities require new services and infrastructure: schools, police, fire, emergency medical services, parks, sewers, water, and roads. When counties invest in these new services, they forego opportunities to improve the same services in inner cities, reinforcing abandonment there.


Page 5