When I moved back to work in Stockton earlier this year, I expected some resistance to the smart growth policies I advocated for. In most other California cities, there has been some serious push back against sensible planning and walkability. So, I came back to Stockton fully prepared to defend these ideas at planning meetings and general plan workshops in order to lobby for a better Stockton. But a funny thing happened: There’s been no opposition to smart growth, no railing against better transportation options, no heated rhetoric about emissions standards. To the contrary, every meeting and public forum I’ve attended suggests that Stocktonians are fully on board with smart growth principles. But how did this happen when other areas of the state have seen much harder battles? Are Stocktonians really that much more progressive when it comes to planning? Or could it be that we are simply apathetic to our built environment?
Around California, smart growth plans are certainly taking hold, but opponents of these policies are making themselves heard. In the Bay Area, that region’s smart growth plan—known as Plan Bay Area– was met with fierce and vocal opposition earlier this year. While the plan was eventually approved, public meetings were routinely marred by the jeers of those opposed to higher densities and more practical planning practices. In fact, you can see billboards along I-580 deriding Plan Bay Area as a conspiracy to seize private property and cram people into “stack and pack” communities against their will. This, in the region that is considered to be the most progressive-minded in California.
Just to the south, we’ve seen similar opposition to smart growth principles in Fresno. There was a very vocal opposition to the city’s General Plan update, with forums hosted linking youth education about sustainable development to Hitler’s brainwashing of children. This hostility hasn’t come from residents alone, but also from elected officials. Fresno City Council President Steve Brandau recently characterized smart growth advocates as pandering to “some pansy in Sacramento who thinks we need to live closer together and ride the bus.”
Even closer to home in smaller communities, we’ve seen cries against smart growth, such as when a reasonable column on walkability from the Tracy Press was attacked by commenters tying the article to Agenda 21. A similar scene played out in Lodi in recent years when a climate action plan grant was opposed by individuals claiming the grant was a veiled attempt to curtail their constitutional rights. Clearly, in cities big and small, the path to smarter growth policies has not been devoid of obstacles from some members of the dissenting public.
But not in Stockton.
Stockton has seen the adoption of a new, progressive-minded transportation plan (SJCOG’s Sustainable Communities Strategy), the approval of a Climate Action Plan, and the start of a General Plan update all in the same year with nary a peep of opposition. In fact, comments at public meetings for these planning documents have been overwhelmingly in favor of walkability, complete communities and a diminishing focus on auto-oriented development. The only real opposition has come from the Builders Industry Association, which is always to be expected given their preference for more sprawling-development policies.
By and large, residents in the Stockton region have been supportive of sensible land-use and transportation policies and programs. While Fresno struggled to adopt a BRT line, facing stiff anti-growth opposition, Stockton’s BRT system has been successfully running for years now and has expanded to three lines. While Bay Area proponents of walkability and reduced carbon footprints faced downright nasty public meetings, Stockton easily passed a Climate Action Plan that aims to reduce the city’s emissions. For whatever reason, the antagonism towards smart growth that’s present in other cities big and small has never materialized in Stockton.
The question is: Why not? Are Stocktonians actually more progressive minded than Bay Area residents when it comes to land use planning? Have we been scarred by so much poor planning that we are actually quite forward thinking about transportation and walkability?
I would like to say yes. Because of what we’ve been through with bankruptcy, Stocktonians might be more open to new strategies for revitalization, even if it conflicts with the status quo. We’ve seen the damage that sprawling development and auto-oriented neighborhoods can have on a city and its people, so we’re willing to embrace change.
But it could also be apathy. Maybe Stocktonians and San Joaquinians are just not interested in raising a stink over technical processes such as general plan updates and regional transportation plans. It could be just as likely that we simply don’t care about land use planning. Crime rates are high and unemployment is still at unacceptable levels, who has the time or energy to complain about the installation of a roundabout?
But I don’t think that’s true.
Stocktonians do care about better planning. Comments received so far during the General Plan update prove it, even if these meetings haven’t been standing-room only. For some reason, opponents of such forward-thinking policies just don’t seem to show up here. Instead, we’ve seen wave after wave of support from citizens and advocacy groups.
The real test will come in the next year. With the city in the midst of a general plan update, it remains to be seen if citizens will show up and voice their opinions on how the planning commission decides to allow—or not allow- growth in the city of Stockton. Recently released maps with the commission’s current sphere of influence preferences show the city limits curiously extending north of Eight Mile Road into unincorporated county land. If my rosy hypothesis is correct, then Stocktonians will show up in force against any more outward expansion. Don’t let me down, Stockton!