Elizabeth Patterson: Do you support sustainable development?

Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007–2020.

By Elizabeth Patterson, first published in the Benicia Herald on May 17, 2024

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development has become a popular planning expression used abundantly but often not understood. “Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Benicia General Plan, 1999).

Most of us get that we need to reduce greenhouse gases that drive climate change and increase climate instability; in short, stop adding carbon to the atmosphere.  The state has attempted to achieve this by adopting law to reduce vehicle miles traveled.  This makes sense because 40% of carbon is from transportation, and so far there are not enough electric vehicles to drive down the amount of carbon from transportation.

If you support sustainable development, it is helpful to ask questions about the City of Benicia’s projects and processes.  To what extent are the City’s decisions reducing greenhouse gases, or at least not increasing greenhouse gases?  Everything is connected – economics, public works, land use, recreation, culture – like bones in a skeleton – it all has to work together by connecting the dots.

The first dot is, fortunately, defined in the Benicia General Plan.  General Plans are the constitution of land-use planning.  Like the U.S. Constitution, one cannot just have an idea and expect to implement it without an assessment of its consistency with the General Plan and thus its “sustainability.”

It is not advice, it is the law.  Community development and sustainability are at the heart of the goals developed in the Benicia General Plan.  I have heard from time to time that the General Plan is old – it is – and out of date – not really.  Would a new, updated General Plan delete sustainable development?  Anything could happen I suppose – one needs to stay alert.

The second dot is that the Benicia General Plan is the principal policy document for guiding future conservation and development in the city. It reflects the community’s shared values and determination of what Benicia is and should continue to be ­– an uncommonly special place.  Just a quick read of the city-adopted Downtown Conservation Plan reveals how “uncommon” it is:

“The failure of the various attempts in the 19th century to transform Benicia into a major city has resulted in the retention of the scale and character of the historic downtown, which presents a rare view of the evolution of architecture from the mid-19th century to the 20th century in California.”

This means that one should not destroy the “evolution of architecture.”  Goals expressed by city officials at public meetings to be like American Canyon’s “hotel row” is not protecting the gem of the uncommon qualities of Benicia attracting residents, visitors, and businesses.

The third dot to connect is the public process.  You really ought to read about the public process involved developing the General Plan: start at page two here.  People were engaged, met together, received mailed surveys, and we even had help from University of California at Davis for outreach, especially to young people.

Want to know what young people wanted?  Check it out at the link. The General Plan is the outcome of a process which began with the General Plan Oversight Committee (GPOC) and the Work Program (1994–1997). It is a process in which the GPOC held more than one hundred meetings and, with public participation, identified the Goals, Policies, and Programs (GPPs) which are the heart of the General Plan.

The GPOC survey identified the following 10 issues receiving the highest level of support (69% or greater) as being important to the community:

    1. Feeling safe in residential areas at night
    2. Feeling safe Downtown at night [ed: this is before tree lights and mixed-use development in the early 2000s]
    3. Good public schools
    4. Balance growth to ensure maintaining Benicia’s quality of life
    5. Small town atmosphere
    6. Growth should maintain small-town character
    7. Citizens need a voice in growth decisions
    8. Attract businesses that sustain environmental quality
    9. Pedestrian-friendly streets in the Downtown and other commercial areas
    10. Library facilities

The fourth connecting dot is that while the City may decide to amend this plan, the primary position of the City will be to implement it as adopted. This will honor both the principle of stability and the extraordinary degree of community participation that went into the formation of the plan. In short, is the General Plan still in step with community values and conditions, to wit: sustainable development, reducing our carbon footprint for future generations’ quality of life?

The last dot to connect is the so-called Seeno project at Lake Herman Road and East Second.  If we are going to reduce vehicle-miles traveled, do we build the stuff that has been built over decades for car-centric development?  Or do we avoid business as usual and design and build projects that are walkable, clearly reducing the need for increasing vehicle miles travelled?

It is a simple question. Think of roads as bones.  The bones tell us how we move.

Remember Lucy, Australopithecus, discovery by Donald Johanson?  Lucy represents the transition from walking on four feet to walking on two feet by standing up.  Bones tell it all.

Well, the roads of development are exactly the same:  are we going to drive or walk?  The transportation  road design of any project will make that clear. Business as usual or taking the path for future generations to have a livable community and planet?

Here are three planning principles for walkability:

  1. Don’t cluster commercial development in one blob,
  2. Do integrated commercial in workplaces and near residential areas within walking distance, and
  3. Don’t build suburban sprawl.

Watch the decisions about projects and you will learn if we are meeting the vision of sustainable development.  God help us if we are not.

Elizabeth Patterson, MA Urban and Regional Planning
Mayor (2007-2020)