Urban Development Options for California’s Central Valley

William Fulton, September 1, 1999

For more than a century, California’s Great Central Valley has been recognized as one of the world’s foremost agricultural regions. A giant basin 450 miles long and averaging 50 miles wide, the Valley encompasses some 19,000 square miles. With only one-half of one percent of the nation’s farmland, the Valley accounts for 8 percent of the nation’s farm output-including 15 percent of America’s vegetable production and 38 percent of fruit production.

Today, large parts of the Valley are making a transition to an urban economy. Led by such emerging metropolitan areas as Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield, the Central Valley already has more than 5 million residents. State demographers predict growth to reach almost 9 million people by 2020 and more than 11 million by 2040.

Given this scale of urban growth, what are the key issues facing the Valley? With the assistance of the Lincoln Institute, the Great Valley Center-a non-governmental organization supporting the economic, social and environmental well-being of California’s Central Valley-has undertaken an effort to try to frame this basic question. Which issues are purely local, and which ones require a more regional approach? What are the constraints the Valley faces in the decades ahead? And, finally, what are the choices? How might the Valley approach the question of accommodating urban growth while still retaining an agricultural base, a vibrant economy, a good quality of life and an enhanced natural environment?

Perhaps the biggest question is simply whether the Central Valley can accommodate such a vast quantity of urban growth and still maintain its distinctive identity. For decades, the Valley’s regional environment consisted mostly of three elements intertwined on the landscape-vestiges of nature, a panoply of crops and compact agricultural towns. The development of agriculture created a rural landscape, but one in which nature was often sacrificed for agricultural production. A distinctive urban form evolved that was far different from the rest of California. The Valley’s older towns, often sited on railroad lines, are typically compact but not dense, with wide, shady streets stretching out along the flat expanse from an old commercial downtown.

Regional and Sub-Regional Growth Dynamics

In determining urban development options for the Central Valley, it is important to understand the context of growth dynamics that affect the entire region as well as important sub-regions. Although the geographical size of the Central Valley is very large-far larger than many states, for example-in many ways it should be viewed as one region with a common set of characteristics and problems. These include:

Air quality: The Central Valley consists of one air basin, and so pollutants emitted in one part of the Valley can have an impact hundreds of miles away.

Water supply and distribution: Although many parts of the Central Valley depend heavily on groundwater, almost every community in the region is at least partly dependent on one water source: The drainage that flows into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and then through the Sacramento Delta. This water source is also used in many different ways by both state and federal water projects. Transportation links: The Central Valley is connected internally and to other regions by a series of transportation links. Most obvious are the major freeway corridors, including Highway 99, Interstate 5, and Interstate 80, along with rail lines, which generally follow the Highway 99 corridor.

Land supply and cost: In virtually all parts of the Central Valley, land is cheaper and in more abundant supply than it is in coastal areas. This is one of the main reasons why population growth has shifted from the coast to the Central Valley.

At the same time, the Valley can be viewed as a group of five sub-regions, each with its own growth dynamic. These include:

North Valley: Seven counties in the northern portion of the Sacramento Valley remain rural and experience relatively little urban growth pressure compared to the rest of the Valley.

Sacramento Metro: Six counties around Sacramento have the highest rates of educational attainment and the highest wage scales anywhere in the Valley, largely because of the state capital, the University of California at Davis, and proximity to the Bay Area. This has become a popular location for high-tech employers.

Stockton-Modesto-Merced: Traditionally a major ranching and agricultural area, these centrally located counties are now experiencing tremendous urban growth pressure because of Bay Area commuting, though they are not adding jobs as rapidly as Sacramento Metro.

Greater Fresno: Four counties near Fresno remain the agricultural heartland of the Central Valley. Though population growth rates are high due to immigration and high birth rates, especially in the metropolitan Fresno area, the economy is only beginning to diversify and remains heavily focused on agriculture and related industries. As with other parts of the Valley, much of Greater Fresno’s population growth has come from immigration and high birth rates.

Bakersfield-Kern County: Somewhat separate geographically from the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, this area remains a center of both agriculture and extractive industries, especially oil. This region is experiencing rapid population growth and is the only part of the Valley that appears to be directly influenced by spillover growth from Greater Los Angeles.

Underlying Issues

With so much urban growth on the horizon, the Central Valley’s twenty-first-century landscape will be shaped by the interplay among several different issues:

Agriculture: Agriculture is likely to consume less land and less water in the future than it has used in the past, but it is still likely to be the sector that most determines the Valley’s urban growth patterns. The critical issues are: What kind of agricultural base will the Valley have in the next century, and how much land and water will that agricultural base require? Recent trends have moved the Valley toward ever-higher-value crops, and competition with foreign markets is expected to be fierce.

Socioeconomic issues: The Valley has traditionally lagged behind the rest of California in social and economic indicators. Unemployment and teenage pregnancy are high, while household income and educational attainment is low. Like the rest of California, the Valley is rapidly evolving a unique mix of racial diversity. Although the Valley will soon get a boost from the creation of a new University of California campus in Merced County, the region’s overall economic competitiveness may not be able to match its urban population growth.

Natural resources: In the rush to create one of the world’s great agricultural regions, the Central Valley’s leaders often overlooked the wonderland of natural resources that lay at their feet. For example, the Valley’s vast system of wetlands, once one of the largest and most important in the world, has almost completely disappeared, much to the detriment of the migratory bird population. In the future, there will be increasing pressure to restore and enhance these natural resources even as the Valley continues to urbanize. The entire San Francisco Bay-Sacramento Delta ecosystem has emerged as the focal point of a massive state and federal effort to improve water quality and restore biodiversity.

Infrastructure and infrastructure financing: When California’s coastal metropolitan areas were created, mostly in the postwar era,- the state and federal governments contributed greatly to their success by picking up the tab for most of the infrastructure they required. In the last two decades, however, all this has changed. In the Central Valley, the urban infrastructure is underdeveloped, and the financial ability of developers and new homebuyers to bear the full cost of community infrastructure is questionable.

Governmental structure and regional/sub-regional cooperation: In the Valley as elsewhere, a wide range of local, regional, state and federal agencies make decisions that create the emerging landscape. But there is little history of cooperation among these agencies, and especially among local governments. If all these entities can work together well, they can effectively increase the region’s “capacity” to create an urban environment that works for its users while protecting agricultural land, natural resources and other non-urban values. But if these entities do not establish a pattern of working together, the result could be a haphazard pattern of urban growth that does not serve any goal well.

Possible Strategies

Given these background conditions, the Central Valley could adopt any one of a number of strategies for shaping urban growth, or different parts of the Valley could “mix and match” from a variety of possibilities, which include the following:

Concentrate urban growth in existing urban centers. The Central Valley’s urban centers are well established and well served by existing infrastructure. They contain most of the current job centers and community support services and amenities required for urban or suburban living. This strategy would concentrate urban growth in and near these centers through a combination of infill development and compact growth in new areas.

Adopt a “metroplex” strategy. This strategy would recognize that population growth in the Valley will be concentrated in a few large metropolitan areas. Urban growth needs, including urban centers, bedroom communities, parks and greenbelts, should be dealt with at the metropolitan level in a small number of distinct “urban metropolitan regions.”

Create a “string of pearls” along Highway 99. For most of this century, Highway 99 has been the Central Valley’s “main drag.” Virtually all of the Valley’s older urban centers are located along this corridor. One possible strategy would be to concentrate future urban development up and down Highway 99, creating a string of urban and suburban pearls. In point of fact, the string of pearls is already emerging in some places. New development districts are being created along the corridor to the north and south of existing cities and towns because of access to this major transportation artery.

Encourage the creation of new towns in the foothills on the west side of the Valley. The so-called “Foothill Strategy” has been discussed for several years in some parts of the Valley. Foothill new towns would place commuters closer to Bay Area jobs and protect prime farmland on the Valley floor. However, water and infrastructure finance issues make this strategy very difficult to achieve.

Permit the emergence of an urban ladder. A final possibility is to permit the development of what might be called an urban ladder: a network of urban and suburban areas that run up and down the Valley along Highway 99 and Interstate 5, and then run across the Valley on a series of east-west rungs along smaller roads that connect the two freeway corridors. In many ways, the urban ladder is the most likely possibility, simply because it connects existing cities and towns with probable new areas for urban growth by using the available transportation corridors. At the same time, however, it holds the potential to create more “suburban sprawl” than any other option.

Many of these options are already emerging as an actual urban pattern in certain parts of the Valley, and it is unlikely that there is a “one-size fits all” answer for the entire Valley. But, unless the civic leaders of the Valley confront the issue of urban growth head-on, it is likely that the Valley will adopt the sprawling and inefficient land use patterns that characterize Los Angeles and California’s other coastal metropolitan areas.

There is still time to shape a different outcome in the Valley, if civic leaders work together in a conscious attempt to design a set of workable urban development patterns that will operate efficiently and effectively for urban dwellers, for employers, for agriculturalists, and for the natural environment.

William Fulton is editor of California Planning and Development Report, contributing editor of Planning magazine, and correspondent for Governing magazine. For more information about the Great Valley Center, see www.greatvalley.org.