A new city has been proposed in California, and I’ve never been more captivated by a vision for the future of my home state in my lifetime. This post is part of a series I’m writing about this bold proposal.

One of the most essential parts of California Forever’s proposal to build a new city is the idea of clustered development, which is the #1 most impactful strategy we can adopt for environmental conservation while also giving humans places to live.

Clustered development concentrates the footprint of a city in a small area, leaving the majority of the land untouched. Sadly, it’s an underrated strategy in US environmental policy. We focus on designing buildings to be as energy-efficient as possible while forgetting that if they’re located on the periphery of a sparse community that requires everyone to get in a car in order to get there and involves the bulldozing of many more acres of nature for its development.

The city center of Siena, Italy is home to 30,000 people. It is the same size as a single Houston highway interchange .

Replacing California’s sprawling development pattern

The focus on clustered development is a breath of fresh air compared to the dominant sprawl development pattern in California over the past few decades, which consumes vast swathes of California’s stunning landscape. All you need to do is drive to the edge of an urban area, and you’ll see new tract development spreading out in all directions.

The reason development in California tends to eat up so much of our state’s beautiful land is tragically ironic. Well-meaning environmental advocates have created limits to how much we can build in our existing urban areas, with the thought that this will lower the impact of humans on California’s environment.

But people still need places to live, so instead of making the problem go away, these limits to development within existing built-up areas have simply pushed that development to the fringes, where it uses up land that otherwise would have stayed open and preserved.

Pricing people out and pushing them to places like Arizona, where temperatures can be 110℉+ for weeks at a time, is not saving the environment!
Pushing development to the fringes also results in longer commutes, which in turn increases pollution. There is a strong correlation between higher density and lower vehicle miles traveled (VMT): as cities become denser, people drive less. It’s not rocket science — when destinations are closer together, walking, biking, or public transportation become more attractive and feasible, and these have a much smaller environmental footprint than driving.

Environmental regulations in California are often the strictest along the coast, where the climate is more favorable and economic opportunities are more abundant. As a result, developers are pushed to build in inland areas like Fresno and Bakersfield. These places are not only far away from major job centers, exacerbating inequality, but also require air conditioning to be liveable in large parts of the year.

As the housing crisis in California has worsened, it has even pushed people beyond those inland regions to more affordable states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida. Unfortunately, these areas have a much higher carbon footprint than California due to their hotter climates. A temperate coastal region like California is one of the most sustainable climates to live in in the US, and pushing people out by limiting development is the opposite of helping the environment.

Car use declines with density. It declines particularly rapidly from <2,000 to >3,000 residents per mi². (Planetizen)

The specifics of California Forever’s plan
The ballot initiative goes into detail about what this clustered development will mean in practice. Although California Forever bought over 60,000 acres of land, the initiative proposes using just 17,500 acres for the development of the city. (For comparison, Golden Gate Park is about 1,000 acres and San Francisco is about 30,000 acres.) The remaining acreage would be used for wind farms, solar farms, agriculture, and open space.

Clustering development allows us to preserve more of the natural and agricultural space around it
When development isn’t clustered, it consumes far more natural and agricultural land
Of the space devoted to the city, over 20% (4,000+ acres) will be dedicated to parks, trails, community gardens, and other open spaces. This commitment to green space is not just a bonus; it's a core aspect of the clustered development approach that prioritizes environmental preservation.

The Solano County Habitat Conservation Plan was a key reference for California Forever when selecting the location. Following those guidelines, they located the city in the part of the county with the lowest ecological value, and made a special point to steer clear of ecologically sensitive areas like Suisun Marsh, Jepson Prairie, and Cache Slough.

The impact on agriculture, a vital part of California's economy and landscape, will also be minimal. The plan was specifically designed to avoid Solano County’s prime agricultural land. According to California Forever, the entire community is located on non-prime farmland, and as a result, the proposal displaces less than 2% of the county's agricultural value: Solano County as a whole produces roughly $385 million of agricultural output per year, and the entire 17,500 acres used for the new community produce only about $6 million out of that $385 million, i.e. less than 2%.

A photo from the area where the new city has been proposed
An illustration from California Forever's website depicting the type of community they plan to build
To put all this into perspective, this level of preservation in new development is almost unheard of. Most developers in California squeeze out as much usage of their land, because they’re limited by how much they can build on any given acre. California Forever identified this structural problem and suggested a novel solution: let’s change the rules so that we can build more using less space — this will allow us to keep more land for renewable energy, agriculture, and open space than if development is forced to spread out in all directions.

My hope is that California Forever can serve as a model for how clustered development can work in California, showcasing how we can preserve the natural landscape and reduce our carbon footprints. Hopefully then this approach can spread throughout the state and save our beautiful landscape!

If you’re interested in understanding more about the new city that California Forever has proposed, here are the other posts in the series: