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.

As an urbanism nerd, the aspect of California Forever’s plan that I was most eager to hear about was land use and urban planning for the new city. From reading the ballot initiative and speaking with their team, I was pleased to see that their plan incorporates the hard-earned lessons we've learned about city development over the last 75 years. They recognize that the dominant sprawl development pattern is not working, and California Forever is trying to turn the tide of how cities and neighborhoods are developed in California.

As I dug deeper into the plan, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how seriously they took these ideas. California Forever is essentially proposing the urbanist dream. This might sound like hyperbole, but if voters approve the plan in the November election, it has the potential to be one of the best cities in the US. It will be a walkable city that improves quality of life and brings down cost of living by prioritizing walking, cycling, and public transit, using space efficiently, and removing unnecessary rules that slow down the ability to meet the demand for housing.

Once I dove into the details, I was surprised by how much they differed from the press coverage. The dominant framing is that this city will be a futurist utopia run by tech nerds, but as far as I can tell, the plan is actually to build an urbanist utopia – not a technological one. The initiative and company website feel like they were written by YIMBYs, renewable energy advocates, and walkability activists, and they echo the philosophies of Jane Jacobs and Donald Shoup rather than Elon Musk or Steve Jobs.

An illustration from California Forever's website depicting the type of community they plan to build
(A side note: While this is all a great concept, the next question is whether the plan actually has legs. California Forever certainly has its work cut out for it — the site has little existing infrastructure, it has no rail connection, and water is scarce across the entire state. I’ll dive into those questions in other posts in this series, but for the purpose of this post I’ll focus on what their goals are and whether I think they are worth striving towards to begin with.)

Here are some of the details from the initiative that stand out to me:

Emphasis on walking, biking, & high quality transit: Compact development is at the core of this proposal. It leads to walkability and enables efficient, high-quality transit services. This not only reduces carbon emissions but also fosters a sense of community and accessibility. Imagine being able to walk or bike to most of your destinations, with public transport as a convenient option for longer trips. The city plans to embrace townhomes and small apartment buildings that create gentle density, moving away from the sprawling single-family homes that dominate much of American suburbia. This approach allows for more people to live in a smaller area, preserving natural spaces and reducing the need for long commutes.
Cyclists in nearby UC Davis
A map of California Forever's proposed bike network, pulled from the ballot initiative
A focus on ‘missing middle’ housing: The plans feature housing that is fairly high density but not high rise — a combination of "row houses" between 2-4 stories high, and apartment buildings going up to 8 stories. This is the type of neighborhood that makes up the most beloved places in the world. Places like Amsterdam, Venice, Santa Monica, Lake Como, Kyoto, and Lisbon are all made of missing middle housing.

In political discussions about building housing, I sense that a lot of opponents are imagining the towering condo buildings of Hong Kong or Manhattan, but that level of density is not necessary to solve California’s housing crisis. Gentle density can make a dramatic impact in the housing supply. It's counterintuitive, but just going from standard suburbia to row houses, cottage courts, and small apartment buildings can get you into densities that are 4x+ those of suburbia!

It’s also significant that this type of middle density housing can be built with wood frame construction methods, which makes it more cost effective to construct. Reducing construction costs results in more housing being built, and at a more affordable price point.
Beloved cities like and London and Amsterdam are made up almost entirely of missing middle housing

Form based codes instead of zoning: Form-based codes are another innovative feature of this proposal. Unlike conventional use-based zoning, which restricts how buildings can be used, form-based codes focus on how buildings interact with each other to create a cohesive neighborhood. This allows for more flexibility and creativity in the use of space.

Conventional zoning might enforce rules like "you can only put restaurants and shops over here and you can only put homes over here", whereas form-based zoning says "as long as the building doesn’t generate noise at night between 9pm and 8am and its height is ≤4 stories, it can be used for whatever the owner thinks the neighborhood needs". For example, if someone wants to open a coffee shop on the first floor of their home, they can do so as long as it meets the standards set for its impact on its neighborhoods.

Technically the city will still have 4 zones, but the permitted uses table shows that these are not exclusive zones like you typically see in American zoning codes where only one use is permitted. They are more like different flavors of mixed use neighborhoods. For example, all types of residential uses are permitted in 3 of the 4 zones, and retail is permitted in 4 of the 4 zones. This is exciting to me because it's a lot more like how the Japanese approach zoning, which limits the "maximum nuisance" in a zone but then allows for any development below that threshold. You can think of this as whitelist vs blacklist approaches:

In North American zoning, zones typically allow only 1-2 uses
The Japanese include all uses up to a maximum "nuisance level"
Granularity: The city also plans to embrace small parcel fabric (consisting of row houses and small apartment building), which allows for changes over time. This is in contrast to building in large blocks, whether through HOA associations of single family homes or via big apartment complexes with hundreds of units, both of which often freeze developments in place. The granularity of this approach is what makes places like Tokyo so special. Small storefronts will enable small businesses to thrive, and mixed uses will be encouraged. The diversity of things close to where you live makes it easier to walk and bike to where you want to be.
Form based codes make it possible for you to walk to your favorite coffee shop in the morning · La Marais Cafe in SF
Tokyo allows for tiny storefronts, which unleashes small businesses to express creativity and try new things

Parking minimums are set at zero: Most US cities require you to build a tremendous amount of parking along with all construction, regardless of the demand for parking. The result: the area of parking per car in the US is larger than the area of housing per human! A groundbreaking aspect of California Forever’s proposal is setting the minimum parking requirement at zero for the entire city. This bold move encourages alternative modes of transportation and reduces the dominance of cars in the urban landscape.
The saddest part: most required parking lies empty most of the time! Just look at these pictures of Tulsa, Rochester, and Camden – there's more space devoted to parking than there is to city!

Minimum density is 20 units per acre: The voter initiative locks in at least 20 units/acre (~50 people/acre) as the minimum average density. This is similar to beloved neighborhoods such as Marina in SF, Centrum in Amsterdam, Kensington in London, and Historic Charleston in South Carolina. Even though people love these places, we’ve built close to zero of them in the past century. California Forever’s proposal would be one of the first communities of this sort built in the US for decades. I am so here for it!
Marina District in San Francisco has about 38 people/acre (above). Hayes Valley in San Francisco has a population density of about 58 people/acre (right)
That density gets bumped up to 30 units/acre (~75 people/acre) in the downtowns, which are called Commercial Mixed Use zones. This makes a ton of sense, because those areas will have the highest access to services, jobs, restaurants, and shops, so it makes sense to allow for more people to live close by to access them.

And I’m pleased that ~50 people/acre is a minimum, because they can build some incredible places if they build more (not to mention make a bigger dent in the housing crisis. Some beloved places that are denser are Le Marais in Paris (73 people/acre), Beacon Hill in Boston (85 people/acre), and Eixample in Barcelona (144 people/acre). For more comparisons, here's a spreadsheet where I track urban densities around the world.
Plaza Real in Barcelona, Spain (left) and a street in Le Marais in Paris, France (above)
Parking garages at the periphery: One of the more novel ideas in their plan is that "each transit line terminates at a parking garage at the edge of the city, making it easy to store cars at the periphery and proceed in on transit." This is a cool idea. I haven't seen it implemented before, but it makes a ton of sense. It recognizes the reality that cars are the dominant mode of transportation in the region and need to be accommodated, while also taking strides in the direction of making transit, cycling, and walking the dominant modes within their sphere of influence.
Above: Venice, Italy has a parking garage at the edge of the city, allowing for people to arrive by car and also enjoy the city as a pedestrian
Right: A map of California Forever's proposed transit network, pulled from the ballot initiative

Rail-ready: While parking garages at the periphery is a great proposal, the project will be far more successful if they get a rail connection that connects the new city to the Bay Area and Sacramento. Rail is unfortunately not promised in the ballot initiative, and California Forever received criticism for this, but I don’t think it’s possible for the ballot initiative to include this in the first place — after all, Solano County voters cannot mandate rail unilaterally, because it involves other counties and state agencies.

The good news is that California Forever seems to agree that rail is the right long-term solution. They speak about the project as "rail ready", and it is matched in the plan they’ve laid out for the rest of the city: a place that is dense, with a central transit station, so that it will actually generate high numbers of transit riders if and when a rail connection is built.

Their lead planner Gabriel Metcalf said, "We will be working with all of those regional agencies, and I think it sort of goes without saying the city can’t grow past a certain point unless we are successful in building those external connections. I think we’re completely in agreement that we have to build external public transit."

That said, I don’t think they signaled this hard enough at first, because many people’s immediate reaction was that they should have incorporated rail more seriously. While rail is a promise that’s not theirs to make (and therefore they couldn’t include it in the language of the ballot initiative), they could definitely have done a better job of making this clear from the start. California Forever realized that, and they updated the initiative to include a requirement to study and accommodate getting rail to the site, which signals their interest in making it happen. I’d love to see more steps in this direction—perhaps initiating public conversations with some of the relevant agencies and sister counties?—but this is a good start.

Predictable, fast approval process: One of the most radical changes by California standards is that they intend for the planning process to be swift and efficient. Their stated goal is that a complying project should be approved in just 10 days. This is a stark contrast to the often lengthy and cumbersome processes in most cities in California.

From an urban planning perspective, I’m extremely excited by California Forever’s plan. I couldn’t dream of a better set of design principles for the most ambitious city building project that this country has seen in decades, and it seems that they have the right goals and team to build a truly special place. This is California’s chance to build a walkable, sustainable, and vibrant community that learns from the past and looks to the future. This could be the first walkable city in America in a century, and I can't wait to see it come to life!

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