Monday, May 25, 2015

Celebrating the North Bay Theres

Today, I’ll begin with scheduling notes.  The Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds update that I’ve been promising for the last couple of weeks has moved closer.  However, it’s still a step away from the news that I want to announce, so I’ll defer the update for another post or two.

Also, there is a recently published report on a regional transit strategy that is begging for my comment, so I’ll slide in that topic either before or after the Fairgrounds update.

The result of these adjustments is that I must defer the Petaluma SMART station update, which I had planned for today, until three posts hence.  It’ll be a good change.  There are ramifications to the SMART discussion that will take a couple of posts to fully explore.  It’ll be better to defer the conversation until I can give it the undivided attention it deserves.

Moving around the chess pieces resulted in today being temporarily without a topic.  I’ll use the free day to remind all of us that the North Bay is worth celebrating, both for the distinctive elements of the communities that have been preserved and for the geographical separations that remain.  The two combine to give North Bay communities individual identities, a reality that isn’t always true elsewhere in the Bay Area.

An El Cerrito reader emailed me a couple of months back.  She complained about the nearly continuous development from Richmond to San Jose and about how, although she personally walks for many weekly tasks, most of her neighbors rely on cars for their chores.  Although she didn’t quite connect the dots, I understood her points to be that she believed herself to be living in an urban setting and that she found her local urbanism physically and emotionally unsatisfying.

In my response I noted that having sprawling drivable suburbs bump into and overrun each other didn’t make a place “urban”.  I also suggested that had the East Bay developed with a walkable urban aesthetic it would look different than the current East Bay.  I congratulated her on her walking habit, but noted that unless non-car alternatives were the more convenient transportation alternatives, which clearly hadn’t happened in her neighborhood, the place isn’t urban.

I haven’t heard from her again, but hope she remains a reader and has begun to grasp how her community became the way it is and how it should begin evolving.

The exchange reminded me that I’m happy to live in the North Bay where most communities remain geographically separate.  I won’t claim that the North Bay community leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were smarter than those in the East Bay.  I’ve seen too many Marin County master plans with low-density subdivisions sprawling up hillsides to make that argument.

But the North Bay was spared some of the development pressure that was applied to the East Bay in that era, so it was also spared the legacy of built environments that were shaped by the ethos of the time.

(A couple of years ago, I engaged in a spirited on-line debate with Sonoma civic proponents over a point of land-use philosophy.  One of their arguments was that I had no right to express an opinion because I lived in Petaluma where the eastside sprawls, a development feature that Sonoma has largely avoided, and that I therefore had no credibility.

The argument was an easily dismissed ad hominem attack, but I also argued that the only reason Petaluma looks different than Sonoma is that Sonoma is further from the center of the Bay Area and was therefore less impacted by the pressure for drivable sprawl during the post-World War II era.  I doubted that there was much difference in the wisdom of the Sonoma and Petaluma community leaders of the time.

The Sonoma folks scoffed at my argument, but the loss of an educational moment was theirs.)

Combined with the geographical separation of North Bay communities is a thought that Kent Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council set forth in a 2013 article.

Using Gertrude Stein’s quote about Oakland as his jumping off point, Benfield argues that communities work better when they have points of enduring cultural reference.  These cultural references can be historic downtowns, stately churches, or beloved parks, but their continuing presence from generation-to-generation provides community focal points and preferred inspirations for new development.

Benfield suggests that it was a loss of the cultural references from her youth about which Oakland native Stein was complaining in her famous comment about there “being no there there.”

Here in the North Bay, we’ve retained and emphasized many focal points, from the main street of Calistoga with hilly vista points on both ends to the plaza in downtown Healdsburg to the Sonoma City Hall which may be my favorite sight in the North Bay.

Combining these retaining focal points with the physical separations between cities, many North Bay communities have separate and unique identities.  Novato is different from Petaluma which is different from Cotati which is different from Rohnert Park in ways with which Richmond, San Pablo, Albany, and El Cerrito can’t complete.  Nor can San Leandro, Hayward, San Lorenzo, and Castro Valley.  Or San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, and Campbell.  Or Millbrae, Burlingame, and San Mateo.

We have something remarkable in the North Bay that we should cherish.  But it can be lost, much as it was lost in the East Bay.  Urbanism is the path to protecting what we have, both the focal points and the separations.  It’s up to us to embrace the solutions that urbanism sets forth.  If you agree, I hope your keep following this space.

Next up will be either the long-promised Fairgrounds update or an analysis of a proposed regional transit strategy.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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