Monday, June 8, 2015

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

With this post, I’ll close my far-flung cogitations on the alternative location for the second SMART station in Petaluma and the conclusions to which my thinking led me.

I fear I may have confused a few readers by the way I connected the dots in my head.  It seemed logical to me, but know that I don’t always think like other people.  Today, I’ll try to smooth over any rough patches in my logical progressions.

(When I was a student at Cal, I took a class on the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I was enroute to becoming the first civil engineering graduate in Cal history to complete the liberal arts requirement, normally met with lower division classes in American history or political science, with upper division classes on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

For my class term paper, I tried to compare and contrast Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Superman.  It was a worthy topic, but I didn’t have the chops for it.  In one particular tortured section, the professor, a Nobel Laureate in poetry, wrote in the margin “I have no idea what you’re saying.”  So if I lost you somewhere during my preceding posts, you have my apologies and the knowledge that you’re in good company.)

To recap where I’ve been, I introduced the alternative location for the second station and why it would solve dual problems for SMART, delved into the regulatory constraints on the alternative location, and described the insights about urban growth boundaries and transects to which the contemplations  took me.

To me, the most important conclusion is that urban growth boundaries, the limit beyond which cities may not expand, and transects, the urbanist theory by which cities progress logically from wilderness to urban cores, are fully complementary, the coherency to which the title refers.  The declining leg of transects, as the uses transition through lower density development to agricultural uses is exactly where the urban growth boundary should be.

The only caveat is the urban growth boundaries must remain fixed, or nearly so, over time.  A city that conforms to the theory of transects would have appropriate uses at its boundaries, perhaps low-density residential, development-supported agriculture, large natural parks, or even improvements such as community airports or multi-field sports complexes.

To move an urban growth boundary beyond these uses, allowing apartment buildings or strip malls on the far side, would result in an incoherent, difficult to serve community.  The fact that we’ve built communities in this way for seventy years doesn’t mean we should continue to do so.

This summing up leaves three lingering questions to address before I close.

Why did city building of the past not need urban growth boundaries?:  San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and New Orleans.  These are all fascinating places that we love to visit.  But they grew during an era when no one spoke of urban growth boundaries or transects.  Why do we now need tools of which the city builders of the past knew nothing and yet succeeded well?

The answer is the automobile.  The great cities we enjoy today reached their near final form when people moved about on foot, on horseback, or by common conveyance.  Those means of transport limited how far people could reasonably travel, so cities remains relatively compact, a feature that we continue to find attractive.

If San Francisco hadn’t been settled until after the car was commonplace, it would likely look very different.  More freeways and wide streets to enable people to leave quickly after work.  More chain stores.  Less population.

Indeed, I suggest that if the Bay Area hadn’t been settled until after the advent of the automobile, San Francisco wouldn’t be the dominant city.  Instead, that distinction would have gone to Oakland or San Jose for their easier access to the suburbs of Hayward, Fremont, Morgan Hill, and Gilroy.

With no disrespect to either Oakland or San Jose, both of which have places I enjoy, I’m happier living in a Bay Area where San Francisco is the dominant city.

To a large extent, planning tools such as urban growth boundaries and transects are little more an attempt to recreate the development patterns that existed before the automobile.  And maybe even to improve on what early city builders accomplished.

What happens when a city is complete but development pressure remains?: What if a city is logically bounded by physical barriers such as rivers, bays, and steep hillsides or by appropriate man-made limits such as airports and golf courses such that future development would bust the transect?  And what if the same city has bumped up the transects to create an appropriate number of urban centers and urban cores, but is still experiencing development pressure, perhaps because its form is successfully attracting the creative class?  What then?

To me, this is where the garden city fits.  New villages or towns can be encouraged a few miles from the city.  But the new places must be compact places, with strong transit connections to the larger city.  People who prefer fewer lights at night or perhaps a lower housing cost could live in the new places, but still be convenient to urban life.

This idea may seem far-fetched, but I actually proposed something much like it a few years back.  Sonoma County acquired Today Lake, a dry lake bed and productive farm in the hills a few miles southeast of Petaluma.

Shortly after the acquisition, my wife and I attended a fall festival at Tolay Lake.  At the time, County planners were still trying to develop a vision for the place, so were asking people to join an email list.

I eagerly signed up and even more eagerly filled in the comment section with my thought that Tolay Lake could be a small village, perhaps something like Seaside, Florida, populated by park employees, workers at a small model farm, shopkeepers to meet the needs of the residents, writers and artists who would enjoy the quietude, and perhaps a few weekenders also.  Cars could be discouraged, with a frequent bus connection to Petaluma.

I impatiently waited to see if my thoughts would make the email newsletter.  I never found out.  I wasn’t even put on the email list.  It can be tough to be out in front of the curve.

Where does the second SMART station belong?: If the alternative location for the second SMART station is a poor solution, what then?  What other sites remain?

I’ve looked at the rail alignment through Petaluma.  There aren’t many other reasonable places for a second train station.

I understand there was once consideration of placing the second station by the proposed River Front project, near the 101 overcrossing of Lakeville Street.  However, that site is too close to the downtown station.  I could see a location along the proposed Rainier Connector, but that option is likely more than a decade away.  The Corona Road location made sense, but SMART may have poisoned that well with their acquisition strategy.

And that leaves one location I can see, a location that a reader first pointed out to me.  There is a currently vacant parcel along North McDowell Boulevard a short distance north of Corona Road.  It has good rail frontage.  It’s a little smaller than the Corona Road site, but could still accommodate a fair number of cars.

The only problem is that the site is currently proposed as the parking lot for the successful pub at the Lagunitas Brewery.  A parking lot that is needed to address the current problem of patrons crossing McDowell Boulevard to reach the pub.

To my mind, the only way that the parcel can be freed up for use as the SMART station is if aggressive traffic calming is implemented on McDowell.  If traffic be slowed to 25 mph, then pedestrian safety would improve and the street parking on the opposite side could continue to serve the Lagunitas pub.

It would be a very urbanist solution.  But it would solve a lot of problems.  And, as another reader has pointed out, urbanist pioneer Peter Calthorpe long ago sketched up an urbanist community on the opposing side of the tracks.  Although that project would require moving the urban growth boundary, violating a principle that I elucidated above, the proximity of housing, train station, successful pub, and McDowell bus corridor is a compelling urbanist vision.

And the reason I’m here is to point out the urbanist solutions.

Okay, having thrown a lot of words at train stations, transects, etc, I’m ready to take a breath.  Perhaps the readers feel the same.  The next post will pick apart a recent ad that was intended to make us feel good, but falls short on urbanist grounds.  It’s such an easy target that the post will be short.

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


  1. The Lagunitas-area brew pub district fits the Petaluma character, as well as our "brand" in numerous ways. It should be safe and walkable!

    1. Barry, I like the idea of brewpub district also. And I'm disappointed that the current solution is to provide better parking for Lagunitas without addressing inter-brewpub connectivity. But at the same time, I'll acknowledge that my solution, particularly the traffic calming on McDowell, would be a non-intuitive solution for many Petalumans.