Friday, June 5, 2015

On the Coherency of Transects and Urban Growth Boundaries - Part Three

In my last two posts, I’ve written about a property swap being considered by SMART, the regional rail authority for the North Bay.  Initial planning for the coming SMART train had assumed a second Petaluma train station at corner of McDowell Boulevard and Corona Road.  But SMART didn’t own the site and hasn’t secured it, leaving a question about where the station would go.

As a result, SMART is now considering a trade with a North Bay development company.  SMART would acquire an alternative site for the second station along Old Redwood Highway northeast of McDowell.  In exchange, SMART would grant development rights for the SMART land adjoining the downtown Petaluma station.

In the first post, I provided a more detailed introduction to the possible swap.  In the second, I wrote about the land-use restrictions that would limit the possibilities, including transit oriented development, around the alternative station site.  Today, I’ll weigh the pros and cons of the possible trade and then philosophize globally about the issues highlighted by the situation.

From an urbanist perspective, the primary arguments for the swap are the earlier development of a second Petaluma station and the momentum that the swap would give to possible transit oriented development at the downtown Petaluma station.

Also looking from the urbanist perspective, the primary argument against the swap is the restrictions that would limit or prohibit transit oriented development around the second station without changes to the urban growth boundary, the community separator (depicted in the photo), or both.

(Although not an urbanist perspective, many Petalumans also have a concern about the traffic issues of putting the second station at the far north end of town.)

At first view, the pros and cons may seem roughly balanced.  They certainly seemed so to me when I first learned of the possible deal.

But on further consideration, my focus improved.  I think transit oriented development around all SMART stations, including the second Petaluma station, should be an essential element of regional growth.  As a region, state, and nation, we’ve done too much to encourage sprawl not to encourage walkable development, such as well-designed transit oriented development, wherever we can.

But doing transit oriented development at the second station would require adjusting the urban growth and/or community separator.  Indeed, I would advocate for adjusting one or both if needed to facilitate transit oriented development at that station.  But I don’t want to advocate for those adjustments.  I would find them antithetical to good urbanism.  Therefore, my only possible position is to oppose the swap.

I still thank those who have pushed to bring the possibility to our attention.  But ultimately, the costs are too high.

Instead, I encourage SMART to expeditiously proceed with a process to identify the best developer for transit oriented development next to the downtown station and to simultaneously continue a search for a second station site that better meets the long-term needs of the community.

I know that time and resources are tight around the SMART office, but this stuff is important.  If we can’t facilitate the type of places where people would live who be likely to ride the SMART train, then the train may be an engineering success, but a financial and social failure, which isn’t what any of us want.

Having reached that conclusion, let me pull back and take a larger view.  In the preceding posts, I’ve written about concepts such as urban growth boundaries, community separators, and transects as they pertained to the possible second train station.  They were helpful lenses through which to view the immediate issue.

But thinking about those concepts also led to bigger conclusions that crystallized around a couple of recent interactions.

An architect acquaintance, after chatting with the regional coordinator for a rural space preservation organization, emailed me with a question.  He was intrigued by the idea of development supported agriculture, one manifestation of which could be clusters of homes surrounded by working farms, perhaps with the residents helping to work the farm and definitively with the value of the homes integrating with the farm to make the land immune from further development.

The architect liked the concept, but asked me how, when the urban growth boundary leapfrogs past the farm and homes, the developments don’t just become low-density pockets inimical to good urbanism.

 Also, someone at CNU 23, the most recent annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, made the point that it’s ridiculous to have urban growth boundaries that we define as the ultimate limits of our communities and then to consider changes in the boundaries every twenty years.

The only conclusion to my mind is that urban growth boundaries need to be far less movable that we’ve considered them in the past.  Perhaps they need to have a target life of fifty years or more, except in extreme circumstances.

The urbanist concept of transects, as a logical progression from natural and rural settings up through low-density residential developments and all the way to urban cores, supports the argument for stable urban growth boundaries.  It becomes nonsensical to have a low-density residential development at the urban fringe only to move the urban growth boundary and allow a shopping center on the far side.

Some, engrained in the American pattern of continual growth constantly reclaiming the wilderness, will rebel at the concept.  But growth needn’t always be horizontal.  Vertical growth, such as changing the transect of an area from T5 Urban Center to T6 Urban Core, can allow significant population bumps without expanding the urban growth area.

And having urban growth boundaries that rarely move, if paired with strictures on the entity with planning authority outside of the urban growth boundaries, could reduce the need for community separators.  Instead, all of the land outside of an urban growth boundary would effectively become the urban separator.

Some with a sense of history may point out an apparent logical flaw in the suggestion of fixed urban growth boundaries.  What if the founders of San Francisco had set a permanent urban growth boundary for their city in 1850?  Seeing that the future of the community as a supply center for the miners extracting gold from the Sierra, the founders might have set their boundary a dozen blocks above the bay, leaving the remainder of the peninsula tip as a permanent rocky and sandy native area and denying us the eventual delights of Golden Gate Park, the Sunset District, and Ocean Beach.

How can we logically constrain ourselves on urban growth boundaries today while also enjoying the urban places that resulted from not having those constraints in the 18th and 19th centuries?

I think I can answer that question, but will defer the answer to the next and final part of this series.

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


  1. Dave, your concluding question calls to mind Albert Einstein, whose mouth I shall now proceed to put what I think to be consistent words into: We can constrain our urban growth boundaries, the 18th and 19th centuries notwithstanding, by recognizing we shall not maintain a livable community and planet in the 21st century by using the same thinking that got us climate disruption and ecological destruction we shall be continuing to repair in the 22nd.

    1. Barry, I agree with you, with the clarification that the 18th and 19th century urban growth, although imperfect on some social levels, was probably close to environmentally sustainable. It was the car that brought disruption, some good and some bad, very bad.

  2. Let me add that I will do what I can to support efforts to encourage the SMART board to select a second Petaluma station site that supports urbanism.

    1. Barry, I think there is a growing consensus to advocate for the same solution you note. But a consensus to advocate can sometimes be different from actually making voices heard. Public participation may be required later in the year.