What California’s new climate change law means for urban neighborhoods

December 4, 2008

A few months back, California’s legislature passed SB 375, landmark new climate change legislation that, for the first time, linked land use and transportation planning decisions directly to greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Recently, this hit our neighborhood mailing list with a fervor, with people up in arms that this law was just a ploy to increase density in urban neighborhoods. There’s a lot more to it than that, though, so I figured it warranted a post—especially as California has historically been on the vanguard of progressive environmental legislation, so it may only be a matter of time before other states see similar measures in place.

First, a very big caveat: I’m a policy planner, and my job is to help cities and counties figure out what laws like SB 375 mean for them and to (hopefully) encourage them to make progressive planning and policy decisions. Consequently, I have some very strong opinions about all of this, so make of that what you will.

All about SB 375
So what does SB 375 really do for cities, then? It’s important to remember that this law is still in its infancy. We don’t yet know exactly how lawmakers or the courts will enforce it. California cities are watching closely, though. No one wants to be the next Stockton, which recently had its new General Plan shot down by the state attorney general because the plan promoted too much GHG-producing sprawl. (Stockton eventually struck a deal to intensify its transit-accessible downtown, build a bus rapid transit system, and create a climate action plan, among other things.) In the coming years, what is and isn’t required by the law will become much clearer.

Will SB 375 help it happen?

AC Transit BRT: Will SB 375 help it happen?

SB 375 is legislation designed to help implement AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which requires California to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. I’m not going to open the “what causes global warming” box—you can do that yourself. Suffice it to say that the state of California is satisfied that human activity has enough of an effect on global climate change to warrant proactively changing our patterns of development and our reliance on automobiles. Hence, AB 32 and SB 375.

Here’s the new law in a nutshell:

  • The California Air Resources Board (CARB) will develop GHG emissions reductions targets for each region of the state that will allow California to meet its AB 32 goals.
  • California metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must develop strategies to achieve these regional targets through land use and transportation planning, even if the targets are in conflict with local plans. (For Oakland, the local MPO is the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG.) There are a few exceptions for counties without MPOs.
  • Both regional transportation funding and regional housing plans must be consistent with the GHG reduction plan to achieve the targets. (This is important because transportation funding is currently overseen by the Regional Transportation Planning Agencies, or RTPAs, in most parts of California. That means that the RTPA—the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, in Oakland’s case—must work closely with the MPO. Ideally this happens anyway, but now it’s the law.)
  • Development projects that conform to the regional plan and are transit-priority projects will be eligible for streamlined CEQA exemptions and expedited permitting processes, even if the projects are not consistent with local plans. (Transit priority projects, or TPPs, are projects within a half-mile of major bus or rail lines that are at least 50 percent residential and have a density of at least 20 units per acre.)

There’s a lot more there, of course—for instance, each region now needs to incorporate the plan detailing how they will achieve the GHG reductions into its long-range Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), and there’s a requirement that MPOs create alternative plans if they believe that they can’t reach their targets, which affects funding opportunities in ways that most people don’t care about—but those are the nuts and bolts. For the nitty gritty details, check out this analysis. (There are also, of course, lots of requirements that the state, MPOs, and RTPAs work with community members and other stakeholders to determine what the emissions reduction targets are and how to reach them.)

So SB 375 just throws local plans to the wind?
Not exactly, but it does provide a big incentive for local communities to work with regional bodies as they develop their plans to ensure city plans are consistent with regional goals. This isn’t new—in the Bay Area, for instance, most cities already work with ABAG to ensure that their general plans include the city’s fair share of regional housing, and city and county transportation plans are typically developed in conjunction with the RTP. But 375 adds new carrots and sticks to the mix: it gives residential and transit priority projects access to streamlined approval processes if they’re in keeping with the regional plan, opens up new funding sources for these projects, and withholds federal transportation funding from projects that aren’t in the regional plan. Right now, there’s no indication that residential development will be forced on cities where it’s unwanted; instead, the law simply offers some compelling incentives to encourage communities to consider new development. There will likely be extensive regional conversations and negotiations to determine exactly where housing will go and who will benefit.

What happens when the local and regional plans are in conflict?
This is still extremely unclear. We’ll probably have to wait for this to happen and see how it’s addressed by the state and the courts. There are some precedents, however. In Massachusetts, for example, Chapter 40B (the Massachusetts Anti-Snob Zoning Act—seriously!) takes a similar carrots-and-sticks approach to encouraging local communities to build affordable housing. Under the 1969 statute, developers have access to a streamlined comprehensive permitting process when their projects contain a minimum percentage of affordable units. Local zoning boards have flexibility in approving such projects even if they aren’t consistent with approved zoning regulations, and developers can appeal to the state to supersede local zoning regulations if a municipality is not meeting a minimum threshold for affordable housing. Like 375, 40B was designed to strongly encourage cities and towns to “do the right thing” of their own accord (and more broadly, to fight NIMBYism). The law certainly hasn’t solved Massachusetts’ affordability crisis, and it’s constantly challenged—but at the end of the day, it has led to small but significant steps in the right direction. We may see similar progress from 375, although the California law arguably has somewhat bigger teeth and better incentives.

What does all this mean for a city like Oakland?
The short answer is that we don’t know yet. However, Oakland currently engages MTC and ABAG in its planning processes and participates actively in regional planning, so hopefully that means that the city’s general direction will be in sync with the new regional plan. Oakland is transit-rich and has countless infill opportunities, so expect the city to be a target for new residential development. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Many of Oakland’s neighborhoods—and especially those on transit trunk lines (Broadway, Telegraph, San Pablo, International, MacArthur) that meet the TPP requirements—have infill potential, with formerly industrial sites like those along Auto Row opening up. And while Oakland grew out in the second half of the twentieth century, the center city neighborhoods lost population. New housing in the city’s core can potentially add new tax revenue, new shoppers, new schoolchildren, and more. All of that may translate into more federal and state dollars for various services and amenities.

New housing will increase residential density in some neighborhoods, but at the same time, growth can open up opportunities for revitalized commercial corridors, nightlife, arts, parks, and more. At a very basic level, 375 is advocating reinvestment in California’s cities and downtowns, which I think will be a very good thing for Oakland in the long run. Will there be added traffic and parking headaches? Possibly, since more people may bring more cars. However, these are things that the city can (and should) regulate: implement and enforce residential parking permits and metered parking in commercial areas, for instance. Promote innovative thinking to improve transit service throughout the city. Encourage locally-based services and amenities so that residents don’t have far to go. Create an urban neighborhood where you don’t need your car to get by.

About that density thing….
The urban planner in me says I have to pause for a moment to dispel the “density is bad” myth that persists in many American cities. Density is simply a way of measuring how many people live in a square mile, or how many housing units are on an acre of land. It isn’t good or bad until you start assigning numbers and values to it. Intensity is a similar measurement, but in the urban context generally measures how many square feet are developed per acre. (I say “generally” because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably or in entirely different ways—there’s no universal definition of either, so it’s important to know how your particular city or region uses a term.) Density is not the same as building height. There are dense neighborhoods comprised of one-story single-family homes, and areas with high rises surrounded by open space that aren’t as dense. Most cities regulate building height as well, but there are different tools to measure and manage height. (Typically cities use height limits and something called a floor-area ratio, or FAR, which is a method of measuring the massing of buildings; these are combined with density or intensity zoning regulations to shape a community’s look and feel.) For the purposes of SB 375 and climate change mitigation, though, what we primarily care about is the concentration of people.

This Oakland block is densely developed at 85 units per acre, but theres not a high rise in sight.brFrom the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

This Oakland block is densely developed at 85 units per acre, but there's not a high-rise in sight (from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy)

In the American landscape, densification of cities has a complex and contentious history. The federal Urban Renewal program of the ’50s and ’60s saw the mass destruction of cities across the country as freeways and large blocks of housing or offices replaced smaller-scale neighborhoods. Density, intensity, heights, and massing all increased simultaneously. The redevelopment was supposed to “save the city,” but instead, the program arguably destroyed urban life in many communities. (I say this with a very strong bias, as I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, the poster child for Urban Renewal’s failures; there are, of course, some cities in which central business districts did benefit from renewal efforts.) But we need to acknowledge this history, while at the same time underscoring that increasing density in the center city was only one small goal among many much more politicized goals of the Urban Renewal program. Let’s be clear: SB 375 is not “Urban Renewal all over again” in any way, shape, or form.

What does density look like today?
Just how dense is 20 units per acre, the threshold for SB 375’s transit priority project (TPP) designation? It may not be as dense as you think. Understanding what density means—and what it doesn’t—is critical as neighborhoods grow and change. Here’s a great primer to help visualize density, from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Boston. (There’s a free sign up required, but it’s worth it.) And here’s a rough idea of what density means, based in part on the Sierra Club’s definitions:


<1 unit/acre: Very low density; exurban or rural development; large-lot suburban development.
3 units/acre: Typical single-family suburban development. [Example: some areas of San Ramon, an Oakland suburb]


10 units/acre: Row houses interspersed with single-family homes and apartment buildings. [Examples: lower density areas of larger cities; older suburbs; Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood]
50 units/acre: This is what my neighborhood, a mix of single-family homes and mid-rise apartment buildings, is currently zoned; our actual density is a bit less. The population density of our area is guesstimated at around 23K people per square mile in contrast to Rockridge’s 10K, according to these guys (who may or may not have accurate data—but they also think our neighborhood has a “high hip index,” so they can’t be all wrong!) [Examples: Oakland’s Westlake and Adams Point neighborhoods]


100 units/acre: Predominantly apartment buildings of three to five stories with occasional single-family homes and mid-to-high rise apartment buildings. [Examples: San Francisco’s North Beach]
200+ units/acre: Mostly mid-to-high rise apartment buildings. [Examples: Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan; areas near San Francisco’s Union Square]

Population density is important because that magic number determines everything from what types of businesses will be successful to how viable different types of transit will be to how much park space is needed in a community to how many seats schools need to have. More isn’t always better, but there are some thresholds to meet. Certain types of transit, for instance, will only succeed with a baseline population density nearby; similarly, some businesses won’t thrive without a minimum customer base. It’s a balancing act. This is where I hope SB 375 will be most effective: helping regions examine that balance to plan healthy, sustainable, and—above all—livable communities that have enough residents to support walkable schools, jobs, shops, and restaurants; effective transit; active recreational opportunities; and the other local amenities that can make urban living wonderful.

11 units per acre

Homes on the Emeryville/Oakland line: 11 units per acre (from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy)

Last, but not least….what about the suburbs?
What happens to the Tracys and Antiochs of the world with SB 375 and a push to jumpstart urban areas? Only time will tell. But climate-friendly living and walkable communities certainly aren’t limited to large cities; small cities can enjoy similar amenities on a different scale. (Don’t try running a light rail through a small town, for instance—but an express bus that runs from the town center once or twice a day could be a great addition.) Moving forward, compact development patterns and new transit opportunities in the suburbs can help to preserve the open space that remains while strengthening the communities that already exist there. I do think we’ll see an end to large-scale development of suburban and exurban greenfields in California, though. And with fresh memories of $4 gasoline, increased awareness of GHG emissions, and more housing options close to jobs, it’s likely that fewer families will be choosing homes that require lengthy car commutes. Where will that lead us? What do you think our landscape will look like in a decade or two?

Other Resources
This View of Density

Demystifying Density
Corridor Housing Initiative (Twin Cities)
Visualizing Density: 0-5 units per acre | 5-17 units per acre | 17-100+ units per acre

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