Today, San Diego is failing to accommodate our growth demands. Due to NIMBY (people who oppose any new building with a “Not In My Backyard” attitude) pressure and fear, only downtown towers and greenfield sprawl sites are far enough away from them to secure any development permits. And these aren’t our best places to allow for enough attainable or affordable housing. Big, heavy downtown towers are very expensive. But so are sprawling subdivision roads, fire stations, community centers, parks, and new housing construction costs. Those subdivisions are far away from jobs, necessitate a car for every daily need. Suburbia encumbers agriculture lands and are at great wildfire risk. But, that’s mostly what we have available to us to build the housing we need to accommodate for the next 1.3 million people by 2050 (SANDAG).
To continue building our San Diego region, I recommend using Leon Krier’s model for development. In Krier’s model, cities and towns expand by developing new mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. New neighborhoods extend from an existing neighborhood with centers and edges for each neighborhood about a quarter of a mile apart as opposed to endless housing without boundaries. Concurrently, I agree with Andres Duany’s successional development model in which neighborhoods gradually intensify from less urban to more urban patterns over time (from single-family detached to attached townhouses to stacked flats).
Mr. Krier says, “nature works fundamentally through reproduction/imitation and so do all human activities.” This is analogous to natural growth, in which energy circulates more and more efficiently within a relatively stable structure (neighborhood infill) of each ecology as it progresses towards a climax (think historic Paris, Tokyo, and Chicago). This analogy teaches us that new neighborhoods extending from existing neighborhoods in addition to infill growth follow the natural pattern of successful city building.
Up-zoning is becoming a common YIMBY (people who want more urban lifestyles in the city support new building with a “Yes In My Backyard” attitude) call across the country. However, we only need to look at our current level of incompetence in building better neighborhoods. It’s already an inherently challenging process in California, but we unwisely continue to use the same old zoning tools that drove our city into today’s housing crisis and auto-domination while expecting more urban outcomes. Conventional land use zoning segregates land by simple residential, commercial, and industrial pods of development. So, even if its improved by up-zoning, it won’t magically start building more mixed-use walkable places. Conventional zoning is simply the wrong tool.
In San Diego, we are very proud of our latest greatest zoning tool to build more housing: allowing for waivers to grant relief from the current regulatory standards. This is illuminating because if the best way to get what we want/need is a ‘waiver’ from our zoning rules, then our zoning is broken. Thus, it is more an example of the inadequacy of conventional zoning than an example of innovation.
Having well-defined development models, and using infill and new neighborhoods for any town extensions, creates a more predictable and proven growth pattern. Better zoning regulations, as found in form-based, place-based, or context-sensitive codes, allows for more predictable infill and neighborhood development. Additionally, better zoning regulations help build more mixed-use, walkable, and transit-supported neighborhoods. These outcomes are better for everyone involved compared to simply hoping for the best with a waiver and up-zoning approach. Chula Vista’s East Mesas, San Marcos’ University District, and Ramona’s Town Center use form-based codes today to build new neighborhoods.
We’ve been testing the idea of simply building more of the same downtown tower or suburban sprawl development, but on a larger scale, over the past 60 years. It has proven a failure in delivering us quality-of-life improvements, much less in building towards a maturation of livable urban neighborhoods over time. Essentially, our 1950’s suburban growth model is built into our city’s DNA and existing zoning code because San Diego is still a relatively young city. We became a robust and wealthy city in the mid-1950s when autos were taking over our nation and housing models began to sprawl.
It’s time to take the keys away from Granddad and use the right tools: Infill and neighborhood extension regional growth models plus form-based/place-based code tools to enable mixed-use, walkable urban development.