Working Landscapes: Solutions to California economic woes could be under our feet

150 150 Jim Mayer

(photo credit: Violeta Vaquiero)

How well California manages its urban growth and economic development over the coming generation will ironically be determined by how well it manages the lands where few people live.

As the globe, the nation, and now California emerge from the deep recession, the desire to get things done – whatever it is you want to do, whatever you have been waiting to do – suddenly feels urgent.

Builders want to build. Entrepreneurs want to grow. Millennials want to start households. Keeping with tradition, Californian are ambitious, and as of lately, unsatisfied.

How ambitious? We expect to succeed in a highly competitive and innovation-driven global marketplace, restoring the middle class in the process. And we will do so without the extinction of a single species, or the loss of a cherished vista — all while we restore the environment and do at least our share to slow global climate change.

We are unsatisfied because we have not found a way to adequately resolve our competing noble goals. We are unsatisfied because livable wages and living lighter on the earth cost more than many of us want to pay – or more than many employers can afford to pay and maintain a competitive advantage.

These tensions instigate conflicts and inspire creativity, and we need much more of the later to keep moving forward.

But the issues are so complicated, so convoluted, it is challenging to even know where to begin. Finding solutions requires the tenacity of Indiana Jones on a quest for the Holy Grail and the brilliance needed to decipher the Da Vinci Code. And like a Rosetta Stone, a big part of the answer may have been with us the entire time, for some of us, right under our feet.

That’s why the California Economic Summit this year chartered an Action Team to explore the policy priorities associated with “working landscapes.” These are the farms, forests and rangelands that were often thought of as “land waiting to be developed,” but must be better valued and managed for all Californians to be prosperous and healthy.

Farmland preservation is not a new idea. It emerged as a cause in the 1960s in California as freeways opened up landscapes to urban growth. The first frontiers were postcard vistas: Protecting the oak-studded dairies of Marin and the vines in Napa (and the oaks and vines in Sonoma) earned broad public support.

Central Valley cities felt the pressure in the 1980s, and by the 1990s more and more civic leaders were realizing that planting “the last crop” of houses was eroding the base of their agriculture-based economy.

The first-generation tools for farmland preservation included land-use regulations, tax breaks, and market-based solutions. Some city councils and boards of supervisors enacted growth boundaries and stricter zoning rules. The Legislature enacted the Williamson Act, which allows for farmland to be assessed at a lower value for property tax purposes to discourage farmers from becoming developers. And open space districts and nonprofit land trusts were formed to buy the development rights known as conservation easements, or to even buy vulnerable property outright.

Looking back, many important battles were won. But according the American Farmland Trust, California is losing the war: Half a million acres paved over since 1990.

This is a war that California cannot lose – not if it wants to achieve its economic, social and environmental goals. Protecting farmland – and supporting farms and farmers – is essential to growing businesses and jobs of all kinds, nurturing livable communities far away from agricultural regions, and especially providing habitat, cleaning up air and water and reducing carbon emissions.

The rural-urban connection is being redefined. “Working landscapes” and “urban footprints” are not the bookends of land-use planning – they are the book. Consider:

  • Regional blueprint reports – and the public discussions that generate them – are revealing the appetite and the economic imperative of compact, mixed-use communities. Fewer people can afford long commutes or desire big backyards. Cities can’t begin to maintain the infrastructure of sprawl with government’s new cost constraints.

  • Farms near cities – including smaller farms that can be managed by first-generation farmers – are a great way to provide fresh, healthy and local food – and even a good way to inspire gardening and healthy living. We now all live in “foodsheds.”

  • Farmland can double as open space, which people are willing to pay for, particularly if it is linked to adjacent public lands for hiking, biking, birdwatching, stargazing.

  • Farmers are under pressure to reduce costs. Many practices that increase economic sustainability – by reducing energy and water use and the cost of complying with regulations – also reduce the environmental impacts.

  • And some of these practices even have benefits that urban Californians may be willing to pay for. Capturing rain and irrigation runoff reduces flooding, protects water quality and recharges aquifers – all issues that demand costly solutions if dealt with separately by cities downstream. Managing forests reduces catastrophic fires and increases water supplies. The air quality and carbon sequestration benefits of some farming practices are being measured and those practices refined.

So as California finally gets going in this new century, there is a potential to more fully value the state’s working landscapes. And when they are fully valued, we will make better decisions about where to build and what to build, where to plant and what to grow, what to save and how to restore.

The San Joaquin Valley is one place to make this work. It is top of the nation in ag production and poverty. As the economy recovers, urban growth will sprout anew. The blueprint planning that was done on how to grow better communities is being complemented by a “greenprint” plan on how to grow food production and manage resources to benefit both rural and urban residents.

At a conference this month organized by the Napa Farm Bureau and the American Farmland Trust, California’s Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said this is the moment for action. The environmental threats, the economic realities, the health imperatives and the demographic trends give new value to fields, pastures and orchards, creeks, sloughs and even swamps.

Secretary Ross called for building a “durable coalition,” which will require recognizing all of the benefits and enlisting all of the benefactors. “Who has a stake in food production? Everyone with a fork!”

The Economic Summit is one venue for linking the next steps with the people willing to take them, so dig in at

Jim Mayer is president and CEO of California Forward, co-sponsor of the California Economic Summit.


Jim Mayer

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