Some of my wilderness-loving friends are abandoning California. Sick of the traffic, the smog, the subdivisions creeping up and destroying beloved landscapes, they're bailing out in search of smaller communities in the true West.
But urban sprawl is everywhere east of here.
Like most other man-made problems, sprawl is not something you can
run away from. Sooner or later, it catches up with you.
The wanderings of my suburb-a-phobic mother have
always illustrated this point for me. She and her horses, dogs and
boyfriends have ranch-hopped all around California's central coast
since I was a kid. I lived with my father in the sterile suburbs of
Silicon Valley, but weekends and summers I escaped to my mom's
oases of yellow grass and live oaks.
when I was 13, she was living near Santa Cruz, in a small,
ramshackle ranchette on the north side of town. Even then, big new
monster houses had popped up on two sides of the corrals. But we
could ride out for miles through the oak woodlands of an adjoining
ranch, to sandstone bluffs that overlooked the ocean.
Then, as the economic boom of the 1990s got
under way, my mom fled south, away from the high rents and rapid
urbanization emanating from Silicon Valley. Her first stop was a
place in the strawberry fields near Watsonville, where she paid
half her schoolteacher's salary to live in a tiny one-bedroom
guesthouse on somebody else's ranch.
next eight years, she kept on moving, trying to find some place
that was still like the rural California coast of her childhood.
But everywhere she went, sprawl had gotten there first. The roar of
commuter and weekend traffic on the nearby highways drowned out the
whinnying of the horses, and a brown line of smog was always on the
In 2000, fed up and frustrated, she
swore off the Monterey Bay, packed up her stuff and headed south to
rural San Luis Obispo County - 200 miles from the Bay area, 200
miles from Los Angeles, just about as far away from office parks
and strip malls as you can get in California. She found a roomy
house with plenty of acreage and a noticeable lack of big-mansion
neighbors, for less than she'd been paying up north. She unloaded
the horses and declared that her wandering days were over.
But sprawl, like fate, has a funny way of
catching up with you. Just months after her arrival, I was doing
some research and paid a visit to the San Luis Obispo County
planning office. I discovered that the county had recently approved
a 2,000-unit subdivision, complete with golf course, retail space
and a small airport, on the nearby Santa Margarita Ranch. It was
less than a mile from her new paradise.
simple truth is that the West, and those of us who care about the
West, cannot run away from sprawl. In fact, it is our desire to get
away from it that makes it happen. In our quest for greener
pastures, we are abandoning the communities at the time that they
need us most, and guaranteeing that sprawl developers will continue
their march across the open spaces of the region. If we want to
preserve what's left of our communities and landscapes, we'd better
turn and fight.
In California, birthplace of the
drive-through McMansion lifestyle, years of efforts by grassroots
opponents to sprawl are finally paying off. In a landslide 2000
victory, San Jose became the largest city in the nation to enact a
voter-adopted permanent urban growth boundary.
Initiatives to stop sprawl at the county level
appear on the ballot with increasing frequency in California
elections. It's always a tough battle, judging by the
multimillion-dollar misinformation campaigns waged by developers
and landed interests. But on the flip side of the growth coin,
California cities are finally waking up to the fact that there is a
better way to accommodate growth: reinvesting in older
neighborhoods. Facing pressure from a new coalition of
environmentalists, labor and social-justice advocates, San
Francisco Bay area cities are seeking out vacant lots and empty
warehouses to reincarnate as housing developments.
To those of you bemoaning the influx of
Californians taking over your communities, I send my apologies. But
if you don't take to our company, at least take a cue from our
tactics, and stand up to sprawl in your community before it's too
In the meantime, this Californian's gonna
stay and fight.