The California Department of Finance announced recently that the population of California has surpassed 38 million. This should be no surprise to those of us in the San Joaquin Valley, where the most recent growth spurt was felt the strongest. U.S. Census data shows that valley counties grew from 10 to 20 percent from 2000 to 2006.
Much of this growth was fostered by families relocating from the Bay Area in search of more affordable housing. Unfortunately, they didn't bring their jobs with them, and our roads have become increasingly congested.
This growth has raised concerns throughout the valley that significant acreage of prime agricultural land is being lost to urban sprawl. Coupled with a growing air quality problem and increasingly strict and expensive state water, wastewater and storm drainage standards, valley cities and counties are facing significant challenges in planning for their futures.
Making the task even more difficult are several regional and state issues beyond our control.
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The state's population is estimated to continue climbing by 400,000 to 500,000 people annually. And with less land available for development in the coastal and southern regions of the state, we in the valley will continue to serve as an outlet for Californians seeking more reasonably priced places to live.
How can we effectively plan to maintain the quality of life in our valley communities without resorting to the "pull up the drawbridge" approach to planning?
A state law passed in 2006 will significantly change how we plan for the future. Assembly Bill 32, called the Global Warming Solutions Act, will require cities and counties to employ more sustainable and environmentally friendly development methods to meet the goal of reducing statewide emissions from vehicles, businesses and homes to 1990 levels by the year 2020.
According to the American Planning Association's California Chapter -- which recently published a set of policy principles aimed at guiding local planning decisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- sustainable planning is that which places less reliance on automobiles, promotes public transportation and maximizes open space.
Sustainable communities would encourage walking and biking through an integrated system of parks, greenbelts and hiking trails while conserving energy and water. They would feature "infill" projects that reuse vacant or rundown properties and revitalize historic neighborhoods.
The city of Modesto provides great examples of this approach in action. After years of effort to revitalize its downtown, the city is now bustling with sidewalk cafes, new office space and parks as well as two mixed-use condo/apartment projects that are in initial planning stages.
Such improvements require planning, and implementing will create more efficient land-use patterns throughout Stanislaus County. With more residents living closer to where they work, the number of vehicles clogging our streets will be cut, auto emissions will be reduced, and the rate of agricultural land being lost to housing will be significantly lowered.
But for these smart planning efforts to be truly effective on a larger scale, it's important that we not work in a silo.
That's why Stanislaus County and local cities have started talking about preparing a regional countywide plan. We are working with our counterparts in surrounding counties to develop a comprehensive "San Joaquin Valley Blueprint" intended to guide growth and transportation planning well into the 21st century.
AB 32; smart, sustainable planning; and regional cooperation are all important tools to effectively plan for our future. Considering the temporary lull in the real estate market, the timing is ideal.
Kilger is the Ceres city manager and the former community development director for the city of Modesto. He is a member of the American Planning Association, California chapter.