End of Times?
Posted: November 4, 2019
The recent headline on the Opinion page of the New York Times was provocative, maybe even prophetic:
It’s the End of California as We Know It.
That was published Wednesday, as firefighters “turned the corner” in their battle against the Kincade fire, the largest conflagration by acreage in Sonoma County history. Fires also raged in Southern California and electric power was shut off throughout large portions of the state. A third of Sonoma County residents were evacuated from their homes.
For many, it may have seemed reasonable to ask: Is this really The End of California as We Know It?
The Times opinion piece, written by Farhad Manjoo, was re-published in Sunday’s Press Democrat and will be shared all over the planet on social media. Its click-baiting headline undoubtedly will prompt reaction ranging from hand-wringing to schadenfreude among those geared toward emotion rather than action.
But action is what is required right now. Action to change course, to throw out the status quo and point ourselves and our state in a new direction.
OK — that’s a big leap from “ourselves” to “our state.” It takes a lot of time and effort to turn a ship that’s big enough to hold 40 million people. As Manjoo wrote, “the big things seem impossible here” in California. So let’s start on a smaller scale, right here in Sonoma County. Instead of sitting around lamenting “The End,” let’s take action to create a new beginning.
To do that we need to put an end to a number of things that define “California as We Know It.” We need to quit building homes at the edges of our cities, where they are not just vulnerable to wildland fires but also help provide the fuel that turns those fires into urban infernos. We need to end our over-reliance on far-flung power lines that not only are unreliable but also are increasingly responsible for large fires. We need to provide alternatives to the single-occupant automobile, which not only clogs our roads on a daily basis, but also presents additional dangers and difficulties in a disaster when everyone who owns one wants to use it to flee at the exact same moment.
How do we do this at the same time we desperately need more housing, we increasingly are connected to an electric-powered lifestyle and we constantly seek to increase our individual mobility?
To begin with, we begin. These changes can’t be made wholesale, or overnight. But if we don’t start making the changes, we will see this October (and last October, and the October before that) repeated next year, and the next, and the next — until we are gone and our grandchildren are wondering why their elders didn’t wise up and take action back in 2019.
We begin by focusing our housing efforts in downtown areas, close to transit, close to jobs, close to services. Higher, denser residential buildings in the urban core address the very needs identified above by:
- Siting new housing away from the wildland-uban interface, where it is less vulnerable to our “new normal” of wildfires that encroach on city limits
- Creating housing that can, and should, be net-zero energy projects that not only use climate-friendly building methods but generate their own power and are able to store it on site — unshackling these buildings from PG&E’s grid and providing new resiliency for hundreds of residents
- Putting residents within walking distance of local jobs, restaurants, shopping and services, allowing people to conduct major parts of their lives without getting behind the wheel of an automobile. People who live in our downtowns live close to public transit, including bus transit and the SMART train, providing viable alternatives to commuting by car.
Building denser residential projects in downtown areas — a policy that is being pursued to varying degrees in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Petaluma — creates a new beginning for our county, and helps show the way for our whole beleaguered state. New home building that addresses housing needs, climate impacts and transportation issues doesn’t harm “California as We Know It” – it provides new housing and additional options, renewing the California Dream that so many of us still believe in.
Right now, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is pursuing efforts to create more housing in “semi-urban” pockets scattered around the county. This represents “old California” thinking. We need to turn our sights in the opposite direction, and Supervisors should be exploring ways to partner with and help cities build for a more resilient future. With tax incentives, land swaps and even using county land — such as the large vacant county parcel at the corner of Mendocino Avenue and Administration Drive in Santa Rosa — the county can be involved in creating a more forward-looking community.
Let’s all concentrate our housing efforts in urban areas. Let’s take advantage of our urban infrastructure and our urban-focused transportation system. Let’s consolidate growth to encourage energy independence and affordability. This is not The End of the California that we know. This is the Future of the California that we need.