Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

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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:

LOW DENSITY

<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]

MEDIUM DENSITY

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]

HIGH DENSITY

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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The City Dweller’s Guide to the Election: Part III (National)

November 3, 2008

Red states, blue states. Lavender and indigo. The country is awash in swathes of paint as we attempt to color code our politics. I live in a blue city in a blue county in a purple state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate in a generation, and isn’t likely to in this race, either. My county hasn’t gone red in more than fifty years. But is this a good thing for California’s cities? I wanted to unpack this, issue by issue, to see. I should preface this post by saying that I am an unabashed Obama supporter. But many of the reasons for this have to do with my personal politics and values, and not necessarily my Oakland issues. What do my city, my neighborhood, and the thousands like them across the country have to gain or lose on Tuesday? I looked at some of Oakland’s key issues to see. (The position overviews are somewhat abbreviated to capture the big ideas, and are based on the New York Times‘ assessment of each candidate’s positions based on candidate websites and campaign speeches. So make of that what you will.)

This is (still!) long, so here’s a menu:

THE HOUSING CRISIS
Oakland is suffering dramatically from the foreclosure crisis, and the city desperately needs help to manage the impact on neighborhoods of having bank-owned homes sit empty. Affordable housing is also a huge issue throughout the Bay Area. We need teachers and janitors and police officers and nurses, but at the same time it’s so costly to live here, even in the current market, that the middle and working classes are still being priced out. The city needs federal and state involvement in housing and bank regulation to ensure that there are housing opportunities for everyone, and to fund innovative solutions to the foreclosure crisis to protect neighborhoods from blight and disinvestment. Predatory lending in the sub-prime market was a big issue here, as in other parts of California; we need strong legislation against this.

Obama would: Enact foreclosure moratorium; increase regulation; offer joint fed-state loan restructuring; offer mortgage credits for non-itemizers.

McCain would: Purchase and restructure mortgages; privatize Freddie and Fannie; create more transparency in process.

Advantage: Obama. This is mostly because I think regulation is the key here, and McCain has been a lukewarm supporter of federal regulation (as is traditional/appropriate for a Republican, since small federal government/free market principles are a tenet of Republicanism).

THE ECONOMY & JOBS
Again, another area where Oakland, like the rest of the country, is suffering. The East Bay has lost thousands of jobs in the last year, and California’s unemployment rate is currently at 7.7 percent, the highest in over a decade. So we need jobs, and specifically we need jobs for workers who may not have college degrees or advanced training. A great area to focus on are the “green-color” jobs—jobs in new green industries that Oakland residents and others in the region can be trained and prepared for. Small local businesses also need support to stay afloat, and they’re a crucial part of the Oakland economy. We’ve lost several large plants in recent years, and while the city is working to retain the few big industries it has left, there are acres of vacant formerly-industrial land in some areas (including most notably the old Army base, which is being planned as I write).

Obama would: Cut middle-class taxes but continue to tax higher income brackets; create jobs through infrastructure investment; provide federal aid to cities and states; extend unemployment benefits.

McCain would: Cut taxes across the board and extend Bush cuts, including capital gains; halve capital gains tax rates; cut corporate taxes; guarantee all savings accounts for six months; provide business tax deductions for capital expenses.

Both would: Suspend mandatory IRA withdrawals and taxes on unemployment benefits.

Advantage: Obama. My liberal values shine through here—I firmly believe that folks in higher income brackets should pay more taxes, because for low-income families, a tax represents a much greater sacrifice than it does for a high-income family. Moreover, our tax code and other policies have historically supported high income earners and helped them build wealth, so it only seems fair that the reverse can be in play as well. (However, I would much prefer a tax code that adequately captured cost of living, since that’s a very valid complaint of some of those high-income earners: $250K may be rich in Kansas, but it doesn’t go very far in Oakland. If legislators could devise a system that looked at living wages and cost of living and factored that into AGI, that would be my dream system.) I also believe those taxes should be used by the federal government as aid to states and cities to pay for infrastructure and services best managed/coordinated nationally (e.g., roads, schools, etc.).

HEALTH CARE
This is a more subjective one, but generally I think that Oakland—and most cities—would benefit from a solid national health care system. Oakland is also home to four major hospitals and a sea of medical centers and clinics, so health care is a huge industry here. Better support for and good regulation of the industry are key to keeping costs down. Somewhat ironically, parts of Oakland (notably West Oakland and Deep East Oakland) struggle with huge health concerns, too: high childhood asthma rates, rampant diabetes, a number of diseases related to toxic environments (especially in the case of West Oakland, one of the city’s most polluted neighborhoods because of its proximity to the port, freeway system, and major truck and rail routes). Moving forward, we need to be much more cognizant of community health, from the food we eat to the air we breathe to the water we drink. I’m looking for an administration that will launch an effort to create healthy, sustainable communities across the country, but especially in our cities, where pollution and toxins are often highest.

Obama would: Require universal coverage for children; require employers to provide insurance or contribute to the cost, but exempt smallest businesses, and reimburse all employers for catastrophic health costs; provide subsidies for low-income people; create purchasing pool with choice of competing private plans and one public plan like Medicare; make plans portable from job to job; expand Medicaid and State Children’s Health Insurance Program; prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to people with health problems or charging them higher rates.

McCain would: Oppose mandate requiring everyone to obtain health insurance in order to give individuals free to choose their own health care; make plans portable from job to job and accessible across state lines; provide $2,500 tax credits for individuals and $5,000 for families to buy their own insurance; eliminate the tax deductibility of employer-sponsored health insurance; move to compensate medical providers based on the quality of their work; bring greater competition to drug markets by safe reimportation of drugs and streamlining the process for introducing generic drugs; offer federal assistance for states to create high-risk pools that would contract with insurers to cover consumers who have been rejected on the open market.

Advantage: Obama. Again, this comes back to the fact that I strongly, strongly believe in a national health care system, and I think it would be a terrific thing for cities, where there are dense concentrations of residents. If you don’t agree, McCain’s a better bet on this issue. But under our current system, America spends more per capita on health care than any other nation, and our system is far more flawed. We need wholesale reform, whether it’s public or private. I’d support a hybrid system that provides nationalized basic coverage but preserves some private choice over supplementary insurance, facilities, doctors, etc. to address concerns that care will degrade if everyone is eligible for it.

CLIMATE & ENERGY POLICY
Like many parts of California, Oakland is striving to be a green city and has taken a number of steps in that direction, including the recent inception of the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. While California has been proactive on enacting climate change legislation, including the recent SB 375, one of the first measures to connect climate change and energy policy to land use and transportation planning, we could use more help from the feds on this. We also need increased development of transit, alternative transportation modes, and federal standards that respect cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly communities. After eight years of an administration that refused to sign on to Kyoto and debated, at times, the causes and even existence of climate change, it will be refreshing to have Washington moving proactively on this front.

Obama would: Support taxing oil company windfall profits; support ethanol subsidies; oppose drilling in the Arctic and require oil companies to use existing lands before any new lands are made available; provide incentives to spur renewable energy development. [Obama initially opposed all domestic drilling, but has since said that he’s changed his mind and would allow some offshore drilling.]

McCain would: Oppose taxing oil company windfall profits; support expanding nuclear power; oppose ethanol subsidies; oppose drilling in the Arctic but expand drilling offshore; oppose tax subsidies as a means to spurring renewable energy development.

Advantage: Obama (but both represent big improvements over Bush). “Drill, baby, drill”?!? Are you for real? Actually, I think—hope—that either candidate will be a huge improvement over Bush on the energy front, and the fact that it was a big campaign issue on both sides of the aisle is promising. Honestly, my biggest fear on the McCain end is that he’ll drop dead and Palin will be running the country, which is scary for alternative energy. Yes, Alaska has some oil. But drilling there is a band-aid to the much larger issue of our reliance on oil, and when it runs out—which it will, and in our lifetimes—we’ll have no oil and a devastated landscape. Also, there is no reason to be providing incentives for oil extraction a la windfall tax breaks. Instead, that money should go into encouraging metro areas to build up their mass transportation systems and dense urban cores.

On density and cities: My favorite line from this campaign was from a Minnesota congresswoman explaining the liberal agenda: “They want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, [and] take light rail to their government jobs. That’s their vision for America.” Yup, exactly, sounds good to me! (Except that our bungalow, located at the heart of one of Oakland’s densest neighborhoods, gets miffed when she gets called a “tenement,” as do the lofts and the Victorians down the street.) Dense urban centers don’t always translate to high-rises or slums, as nay-sayers like to claim. Our neighborhood is a mix of Victorian and arts and crafts single-family homes with yards, historic fourplexes, mid-century apartment buildings, and brand-new condo buildings. We have, within a few blocks: two grocery stores, three churches, a synagogue, a lake with trails and a public boathouse, a creek, a museum, a senior center, one big park, a rec center, lots of little parks and tot lots, a dog park, a number of schools, two hospitals, art galleries, auto shops, a children’s storybook park, and coffee spots and restaurants galore. Several bus and train lines run through our neighborhood. The people who live here range from urban singles to families in their first homes to families with older children to empty nesters enjoying retirement to seniors on fixed incomes in assisted living facilities. We have some urban grit here and there, but we know our neighbors and feel safe. The “inner city” (and at less than a mile from city center, we’re as in as it gets) isn’t such a bad place to live! Cities aren’t for everyone, true—but we should be ensuring that those who do want to live in cities are able to do so with as minimal a footprint as possible.

I should note that I do have one big issue with Obama: ethanol subsidies. There are huge issues with the ethanol industry today, not the least of which is the notion of providing incentives for fuel rather than food in a nation where children in Oakland and other places across the country don’t have enough to eat. I’d like to see a reformed farm bill address the connections between food and fuel, deal with the corn lobby, and ensure that any new energy generation is both sustainable and ethical.

EDUCATION
Oakland needs reinvestment in education across the board, from preschool programs to K-12 education to community colleges and trade schools. California is fortunate to have one of the nation’s strongest community college systems, but it’s faltering as funding dries up. We need regional, state, and federal funding to repair our aging schools, boost teacher salaries, and provide better early childhood education. We need loans and grants available to youth to encourage them to pursue higher education. We also need to get rid of No Child Left Behind once and for all. Yes, accountability and assessment are incredibly important. But for inner-city schools whose students may come from homes with a plethora of challenges, evaluation is not the be-all-end-all way to measure success. California schools are currently monitored to see if students meet state and federal proficiency standards. Proficiency is great, but we’re talking about school districts where kids may be moving from school to school; where they may enter the classroom performing well below grade level from day one; where they may miss big chunks of the school day for a multitude of reasons beyond the school’s control. We need to be evaluating more comprehensively to see where students started, what progress they’ve made, and what the factors in the progress or lack of progress were. Only then can we begin to make assertions about how successful a school or a teacher has been.

Obama would: Rewrite NCLB to offer more help to high-need schools and better fund and measure the program; negotiate pay performance programs with teachers, prioritize recruitment and offer professional development; spend $10 billion a year to expand early childhood education; increase federal funding for after-school programs; double federal spending on public charter schools while holding them accountable.

McCain would: Keep NCLB but change mode of measurement; offer bonus pay for teachers who raised achievement or worked in hard-to-staff schools; use federal money to support existing early childhood programs; allow parents to choose the school for their children; expand federal support for vouchers; promote online learning.

Both would:
Expand after-school programs.

Advantage: Obama.
NCLB has to go. Accountability is a good thing, but NCLB’s approach to achieving it has been devastating to our public schools, where teachers now “teach to the test” and often are forced to abandon the enrichment that could be exciting children to learn. And universal preschool is one of my big, big issues. We’ve had models for this for decades, and we still have kids entering kindergarten (and even first grade, in some states) with no exposure to education; they never make up that gap. After-school programs are another big concern, especially for Oakland, where many youth have nowhere to go after school, so I’m glad to see support for this from both candidates. I’m strongly opposed to vouchers, which in my view abandon and degrade our public schools. I still have some issues with Obama on education—for instance, I’m only a lukewarm supporter of charter schools (as a former teacher in one!) and I don’t think we’re ready for performance-based pay, though I certainly believe teachers should be much better paid and supported. Finally, we also need to expand support for higher education, something the candidates have only briefly touched on. The credit crisis has taken a huge toll on college students and their families this year; we need to make higher education, including community colleges and trade/vocational schools, much more accessible financially.

GLOBAL TRADE
This is a biggie for Oakland in part because we have one of the country’s busiest container ports (only LA, Long Beach, and NYC are busier). The city has a giant challenge: preserve our active port and the many jobs it provides for residents, but at the same time reduce our reliance on foreign goods and enhance our local economy. The port is also a huge polluter, so we need to transition it to greener fuels and deal with the emissions of the thousands of trucks and trains that shuttle imported goods across the country. We need federal regulation of ports on this front, though. If Oakland tries to break new ground on its own, it risks losing container ships to other California ports. Ideally, we need federal or even continental strategies for greening the shipping industry. We need to balance our exports and imports so that we can stop sending empty containers back across the ocean, burning fossil fuel all the way. As a nation, we need to think carefully about what we trade and how. We should be trading only those goods that we do not have or cannot produce efficiently (and by “efficiently” I don’t mean Indonesian children, either!) and—importantly—that we actually need. And we should be offering those supplies that we have or can efficiently produce for other nations that may not have those resources. If it’s not in one of those two categories, we should be making it in the United States, growing it locally, or adapting to go without. We should also be thinking carefully about the future of our ports if we do reduce exports and imports over time, and should be planning accordingly. (Also see “immigration” below for more on trade.)

Obama would: Reform NAFTA to better protect workers’ rights and the environment; resist free trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia without reforms.

McCain would: Continue to support and strengthen NAFTA in its current incarnation.

Advantage: Obama on NAFTA; neither has said much to address intercontinental trade, which is problematic. Conceptually, having a continental trade agreement is a great idea. But NAFTA has issues—big issues. It was supposed to generate American jobs and raise Mexican wages and benefits, but in both cases the reverse has happened, which has had dire consequences for Oakland and the rest of California. Mexico’s agricultural economy has failed in part due to the subsidies U.S. agriculture receives. None of the three countries have seen the promised living conditions or environmental benefits. The coalition against NAFTA is hugely diverse, which should raise a big red flag. It needs to be tossed and constructed anew. If you’re not familiar with NAFTA and its provisions, definitely learn more about it (Wikipedia provides a decent starting place). Its huge failure over the last fifteen years also leads us right to….

IMMIGRATION
Immigration is a big issue in many cities, but it’s a HUGE issue in Oakland and across California. While there are clearly a wide variety of views on whether immigrants should be here, the reality is that they are. Oakland schools have hundreds of immigrant students whose first languages are Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Amharic, Oromo, Vietnamese, Spanish, and dozens of others. We need a comprehensive set of programs to support children and their families so that students are healthy, learning, and engaged in their communities. While there’s an argument that says that we should only offer such programs to American citizens or immigrants with green cards, the consequences of excluding these children have the potential to be devastating—both for the youth themselves and for our communities. My preference is to create a path to citizenship as we have had for so many immigrants in past generations, but at a bare minimum we need to find effective way to provide education, health care, and other basic necessities to all families in the United States. Our investment there will come back to us tenfold in educated young adults who are active members of our communities and our work force, rather than youth who are relegated to underground gang activities and other under-the-radar means of getting by.

Obama would: Support a path to legalization for illegal immigrants that includes learning English and paying fines; toughen penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

McCain would: Secure borders, including a fence between the U.S. and Mexico; support comprehensive immigration reform, possibly including a guest worker program [before his presidential run, McCain also supported a path to legalization very similar to Obama’s proposal, but says he has now changed his mind].

Advantage: Obama.
We need to address immigration in conjunction with foreign relations, and specifically in conjunction with our trade agreements with Mexico. Mexicans come to the U.S. because they have so few opportunities there. Improving conditions within Mexico would be a great first step in creating a disincentive to flee. I understand the notion of border security, but in California, at least, immigrant workers play (and honestly, have always played—see also the Chinese workers of the 19th century!) a huge role in our local economy, filling jobs that Americans aren’t taking. We need to address this on a number of levels: prepare Americans who do want manual labor, agricultural, and trade jobs to work in those industries, if they so choose; we do a terrible job of this right now. Then consider the labor gap that remains, and recognize that currently, illegal workers fill that gap. If you want to formalize some sort of guest worker program to allow immigration at that level so those jobs are filled, that’s okay by me, as long as it’s a fair and ethical system. But it should also allow those workers who do come to bring their families, work towards citizenship, pay taxes, and share in the benefits other residents receive. (We already do this with H-1B visas for workers in high-end professional industries where there are shortages; we should offer similar rules and similar benefits for workers who fill critical needs in less sexy manual labor-based industries.) Otherwise it’s effectively just slave labor—no benefit for the workers who help keep our country running. As an added benefit, allowing workers to enter legally removes the market for coyotes and makes it much easier to deport those immigrants—and they’re the minority—who are involved in criminal activity. Right now, there’s a huge culture of distrust, and people are afraid to speak up on injustices or crime for fear of what INS might do. In Oakland, INS raids on parents picking children up from elementary schools became a huge concern (and to OUSD’s credit, the district refused to allow it). Change that culture, and you get stronger neighborhoods, better law enforcement, and, ironically, much greater control over immigration.

GUNS
It probably goes without saying that guns and gun control are huge issues for Oaklanders. There are several camps on this one, too; we have friends and neighbors who keep legal handguns for protection, something I wouldn’t be comfortable with personally. But the bigger issue around here is illegal handguns. They’re rampant, and contribute to the drug culture and gang warfare plaguing a number of areas of the city. We need better control and regulation of guns, and I believe this should extend to bans on automatic assault weapons and other guns that are clearly beyond the definition of “hunting” or “self-protection” weapons.

Obama would: Support some restrictions on gun ownership.

McCain would: Oppose gun control. [McCain did support some restrictions before his presidential run, but has since changed his view on this. He does, however, support mandatory background checks at gun shows.]

Advantage: Obama. This is not even a discussion. Oakland needs guns off the street today. This is a litmus test issue for me.

So there you have it, in a nutshell. I’m not even going to open the box on issues like the war, abortion, foreign relations, the death penalty, or gay marriage (a big one in California this year). Those all affect Oakland, too, but I could write a book on all this, and this is enough for one election!

(You can also read my two cents on the California ballot measures and the Oakland/East Bay elections.)