Time for Change ... Is Running Out
Current farmland conversion trends are not encouraging. Well-intentioned local plans are not doing what they are supposed to. Something must change or the Central Valley will lose another million acres of farmland within the next generation. The impact of such an enormous loss of land on agriculture is hard to predict, but its production capacity will be reduced and the room it enjoys to adapt to changing markets, climate and other forces will inevitably be narrowed.
Given the Valley's inexorable population growth, the single most effective thing that can be done to save farmland in the Valley is to increase the efficiency of urban development. During the 1990's, development consumed an acre of land for every 8 new residents. This is very low compared with other regions in California, and it must be increased if a significant amount of Central Valley farmland is to be saved. And the longer local communities wait to make it happen, the more difficult it will become — until a "tipping point" is reached and the task will become politically, if not physically impossible. The following analysis explains why.
The Tipping Point: When Will It Be Too Late to Make a Difference?
In 2000, there were roughly 670,000 acres of urbanized land in the Valley. By 2040, if current trends continue, that will increase by about 570,000 to a total of more than 1.2 million acres. (Ranchette expansion will claim another 310,000 or more acres. But leave that aside for the moment.) Assume, for sake of argument, that Central Valley communities collectively set a goal of limiting the overall urban "footprint" to one million acres, thus saving about 240,000 acres of farmland over the next 35 years. Assume further, that there are several ways to achieve this objective by increasing the efficiency of development. One option is to begin now, a second is to wait five years and a third is to wait a full decade before taking action to increase the number of people per acre developed (or reduce the amount of land consumed by each person). These options are shown on the graph to the right. [Click on it to enlarge] What are the consequences of each of these options? How much of a difference will delay make in the practical ability of local communities to achieve the goal we have hypothesized?
[Click on any chart to enlarge it.]
Option 1 - Begin Now to Increase Development Efficiency
If Central Valley communities begin now to increase the efficiency of urban development, they can save about 240,000 acres of farmland without a dramatic or abrupt change in the way land is developed. This "Easy Path," illustrated below, shows that from an average of 8 people per urban acre in 2005, the efficiency of new development would have to be increased only to about 10 people per acre by 2010, 14 by 2020, and so forth. By 2040, average efficiency would have to average just under 30 people per urban acre. (In a city that is only half residential, 10 people per acre translates into an average of 6 dwellings per acre in residential neighborhoods.) Though the end result would look significantly different, the change would be gradual over time, with the increase in efficiency improving by 42% per decade. To look at it another way, neighborhoods that average 4 dwellings per acre today, would average only 5 or 6 units within the next decade.
Option 2 - Wait Five Years to Increase Development Efficiency
If Central Valley communities wait five years, until 2010, to make a serious effort to increase the efficiency of urban development, it will take more effort to save 240,000 acres of farmland than if they begin now. The "Harder Path," shown in blue on the chart to the right, will require that after 2020 the efficiency of new urban development will have to exceed what it would have under the Easy Path, and by 2040 will have to average almost 40 people per acre to make up for the fact that more farmland was lost during the initial delay in taking action. The Harder Path still does not require an abrupt change in development patterns until around 2030. Over the period, average efficiency would increase 68% per decade, meaning that residential neighborhoods that now have 4 dwellings per acre would have to increase to between 6 and 7 units per acre within the next decade.
Option 3 - Wait 10 Years to Increase Development Efficiency
If Central Valley communities wait 10 years, until 2015, to get serious about increasing the efficiency of urban development, it could become impossibly difficult for them to save a significant amount of their farmland. What is worse, the true difficulty won't become apparent until around 2025, by which time it will probably will be too late to do anything about it. So much farmland will have been wasted by sprawl in the meantime that urban development efficiency would have to double and double again over the next 15 years, ultimately reaching an average of 70 people per acre, to achieve the same results as the Easy and Harder Paths. The upward slope of the curve will become so steep as to become politically, if not practically, impossible to climb.
The Future Is Now
The implication of this analysis is as clear as can be: Though 2040 seems a long way off, the task of saving Central Valley farmland from inefficient development must begin soon or it is likely to fail. Every day that communities wait takes them closer to the "tipping point," beyond which it will be impossible to save a significant amount of farmland. The future literally is now.
There is another way of looking at the "tipping point." Think of a see-saw and how putting just a little bit more weight on one end can cause it to tip, bringing about significant change. (This is the conception popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point.) Could the Central Valley today be approaching the point where the weight of the evidence, public concern and political will are sufficient — finally — to cause the kind of change that can save the nation's premier agricultural resource? The evidence has been there for years. (We hope this report adds to it.) Public concern has been growing, as evinced by several growth management measures that have been put on the ballot in recent years. And it is dawning on Valley residents and policymakers alike that many of the region's problems — air pollution, traffic congestion, social inequity, loss of farmland — are all related to the same thing: inefficient development patterns.
Are local elected officials — and their constituents — ready to summon the political will to take effective action?
But are local elected officials ready to summon the political will to take effective action? That is up to you, their constituents.
The following sections will offer ideas for change and suggestions for how you personally can hold officials accountably, and encourage and support those who want to promote better growth that saves farmland and addresses the other challenges facing the Central Valley.
[Go to the next section: Ideas for Change]
[Back to top]