Current Trends in the Central Valley
Efficiency of Urban Development
Increasing the efficiency
of development is the key challenge for Central Valley communities that want to preserve farmland and
their quality of life.
The fact that most of the Central Valley's cities are located in the midst of highly-productive farmland places a premium on the efficiency with which land is developed. Inefficient development -- the consumption of a lot of land for each person -- causes more farmland loss than is necessary for attractive, economically vibrant communities. Development that spreads out over the land also leads to more traffic, energy consumption and air pollution, while increasing he cost of providing basic public services like water and sewers, police and fire protection. [Read about the costs of urban sprawl] Indeed, the efficiency of development is really the key challenge for Central Valley communities that want to preserve farmland and their quality of life.
Today, just as it was a decade ago, urban development in the Central Valley is not very efficient. In 1990, there were only 6.1 people per acre of urbanized land.  By 2000, that had increased to 6.4 people per acre. For comparison, in 2000 the Bay Area counties had about 9 people per urban acre and coastal Southern California had just under 20.
During the decade of the 1990s, new development consumed land in the Central Valley at an average rate of 8.1 people per acre. Most counties shared in this improvement. But even at the improved rate, the urban area of the Valley will more than double by the year 2040. [See Where Is the Valley Heading?]
Though people per acre is a useful and universal way of measuring it, the efficiency of land development is not just about the size of house lots. Residential uses occupy on average only about 60 percent of the developed land in Central Valley cities. The rest is devoted to industrial, commercial and public uses, e.g., city halls, schools, etc., though the proportion varies widely from about 19 (Modesto) to more than 64 (Delano) percent.  The clear implication is that, if the loss of Valley farmland is to be minimized, attention must be paid to the efficiency of commercial, industrial and, indeed, civic development as well as to residential land use.
The foregoing analysis does not take into consideration the widely scattered, large-lot, rural residential development often called "ranchettes." As we shall see, these may occupy one-third again as much land as urban development, while housing a tiny fraction of the population.
[Go to the next section, Ranchette Development]
 Calculated by dividing the total area of urban and built-up land — including commercial, industrial and civic uses as well as residential development on lots up to 1.5 acres — by the urban population. Urban land data from the California Resources Agency, Department of Conservation, Farmland Mapping & Monitoring Program (FMMP). Population data from the U.S. Bureau of Census, which includes in the urban population census block groups and blocks with a density of at least 1,000 people per square mile, and surrounding blocks with a density of at least 500 people per square mile.
 A.J. Sokolow, Municipal Density and Farmland Protection: An Exploratory Study of Central Valley Patterns, at 16, U.C. Davis, Agricultural Issues Center, Dec. 1996