Something to Celebrate: Highlights from the year of Sustainable Communities Strategies

If 2010 was the year of setting targets, 2011 was the year of Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCSs), with plans adopted or underway all across California. With so much happening, we wanted to use this holiday season to pause and reflect on how far we have come as a state toward making our regional planning more sustainable and equitable.

So without further ado, here are our Greatest Hits of 2011. Of course, like any Best of list, it is so hard to choose, and something excellent always gets left off the list. So please use the comments section to tell us your greatest moments of the past year.

Learning from the first adopted SCS
In October 2011, the San Diego Association of Governments adopted the first Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) to feature an SCS since the passage of SB 375.  While this first plan fell short in many areas (and is now being challenged in court), it made a few important steps in the right direction, including increased growth in regional centers and a significant investment in public transportation.  It also provided us all a chance to learn from SANDAG’s experience and to take away some lessons that can improve upcoming SCSes, as outlined in a new report [pdf] co-authored by Eliot Rose, Autumn Bernstein, and Stuart Cohen.

One Bay Area performance targets and transportation project performance assessment
Targets! They’re not just for GHGs anymore.  The Bay Area is leading the charge when it comes to measuring what matters. The 10 goals [pdf] are not perfect [pdf], but the region did at least four things right: they adopted (1) a short, focused list of (2) not just metrics but numerical targets to shoot for, (3) early on, (4) through an inclusive stakeholder process. MTC even systematically assessed how well each major transportation project would help reach these targets, as TransForm’s Stuart Cohen explains. Unfortunately, a frankly depressing preliminary analysis recently showed that the region is poised to miss many of its targets.  But admitting a problem exists is the first step toward solving it. The Bay Area has clear goals and, we hope, enough time to correct course and reach them before their SCS is adopted in early 2013!

Sacramento’s draft SCS achieves highest 2035 GHG target in the state
In its recently-released draft plan, not only does the Sacramento region achieve its per capita greenhouse gas reduction targets, but it reduces per-person congestion in a dramatic turnaround from its earlier plans. Even though they will have fewer funds available, the region still nearly doubles transit service and increases bike lanes by 77% — achieving their own goal to do more with less. In addition, the plan improves the balance between jobs and homes, with proportionately more homes to be available in 14 out of 15 job centers. Sure, the draft is not perfect, but if you need a good read over the holidays, check it out!

The Center for Regional Change’s report on cumulative environmental risk in the San Joaquin Valley
How will an analysis of social vulnerability, environmental hazards, and health impacts help shape equitable Sustainable Communities Strategies in the Valley? We don’t know yet, but if anyone can figure it out, it will be the devoted and smart thinkers at CRC working together with strategic and passionate health and equity advocates in the San Joaquin Valley. The report provides much to build upon, as the Valley enters into its prime season for implementing SB 375!

Southern California draft RTP/SCS is a huge step forward
Southern California has often been referred to as the poster child for sprawl, but California’s biggest region just might be on Santa’s “nice” list this year!  Don’t get us wrong, there’s still a ways yet to go, but the region’s draft RTP / SCS, released on December 1, 2011 by the Southern California Association of Governments, is hardly a lump of coal: an impressive increase in the percentage of new multi-family homes and homes near transit, a 13% increase in transit investment, and a significant decrease in driving and congestion.

Urban Land Institute’s report on demographic changes
While many of us intuitively know that Californians’ housing preferences are changing rapidly, ULI’s report, “The New California Dream: How Demographic and Economic Changes May Shape the Housing Market” [pdf] shows us that this knowledge is more than anecdotal, it’s a fact!  Dr. Arthur C. Nelson, author of the report, tell us that Generation X and Y don’t want to live on large lots in single family homes in suburbia – they want to live in smaller homes that are closer to transit.  Reports like this leave some wondering whether the sun has set on suburban sprawl in California, and they bolster our work to create the kind of communities that people want to live in!

Laying the groundwork for healthy, safe communities
Faster than an ambulance, the health community sped to reduce disease via SB 375. Human Impact Partners collaborated with health experts and advocates across the state to develop thirteen health and equity metrics that regions can use to measure their progress (summary, full report [pdfs]). And a study conducted by Dr. Neil Maizlish of the California Department of Public Health, Health Co-Benefits and Transportation-Related Reductions in Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Bay Area [pdf], showed just how much they can really do. For example, he found that a 15% increase in biking/walking there would result in 13% fewer premature deaths and 15% fewer years of life lost for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. A bike trip a day keeps the doctor away!

Building leadership in the San Joaquin Valley
The Smart Valley Places Community Leadership program is training a new generation of advocate leaders and building connections between staff and community groups.  Thanks to a grant from the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities funding planning and public engagement in 14 cities across the region, community leaders in every county are learning about planning and using these new skills to speak on behalf of their communities and neighborhoods.

Increased funding for active transportation
If all we wanted for Christmas was more money committed to bike and pedestrian projects, we’d be happy!  Although there is still quite a ways to go to funding continuous networks of safe routes for walking and biking in California, this year’s round of plans takes a big step forward. In Sacramento, the draft plan proposes to spend 8% of total revenues on bike/ped projects; San Diego committed to spending $2.58 billion over 40 years for active transportation; and in Southern California, the funding for bike/ped projects tripled compared to the last RTP.

Preserving the benefits of nature for future generations
We can’t close out 2011 without acknowledging regions’ efforts to ensure that our cities and towns are surrounded by flourishing farms and by the natural landscapes that help keep our air and water clean. For instance, in its 2012 RTP/SCS, Southern California will commit to engage in a strategic planning and mapping process to support the large-scale acquisition and management of important landscapes. We look forward to seeing this and efforts in other regions – such as the San Joaquin Valley’s “greenprint” effort – bear fruit.

Clearly, 2011 was a big year, and we hope that 2012 will be even bigger.

What did we miss? What are your SB 375 greatest hits from 2011? And what are you most looking forward to in 2012? Let us know in the comments below.

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