[Note from BenIndy: There are many paths to a balanced budget in a small town like ours. Paths that emphasize local economic development by enhancing active transportation safety and accessibility, minimizing fossil fuel reliance, and boosting both outdoor and indoor air quality set a course for a San Luis Obispo that is cleaner, healthier, and safer…and yet still financially stable and self-sustaining. San Luis Obispo and Benicia have a lot of common: SLO is another full-service town like Benicia, with a larger population but many of the same values.]
San Luis Obispo has set big goals to reduce pollution and adapt to the climate crisis, and we’re making big progress. To highlight this work, the City is adding a new Sustainable SLO mark and illustrated graphic on a variety of public facilities and equipment in San Luis Obispo.
“The City of San Luis Obispo is leading on climate action, and we’re excited to tell our story over the next few months,” said Chris Read, the City’s sustainability manager. “Now through Earth Day 2024, we will highlight everything from our new electric buses to our recycling bins and will share resources for how community members can make changes to save money, reduce pollution in their own homes and businesses and help reach communitywide carbon neutrality by 2035.”
Community members may have already seen the new Sustainable SLO mark and illustrated graphic throughout San Luis Obispo and will likely be seeing it more often. Climate action is a major City goal for the City of San Luis Obispo and the City has been working for years from its Climate Action Plan to reduce pollution and make San Luis Obispo more resilient to the effects of climate change.
Sustainable SLO demonstrates how the City is leading by example by phasing out fossil fuels from public facilities and fleet vehicles, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from organic waste and restoring the beautiful natural ecosystems that make San Luis Obispo such a wonderful place to live. These efforts include but are not limited to:
Installing new bike lanes and using all-electric buses that make it safer and easier to get around,
Conserving open space properties throughout the greenbelt to protect natural resources,
Transitioning the City’s fleet to electric vehicles to save money and use less fossil fuels,
Installing new trash and recycling bins downtown to reduce litter and landfilled waste,
Adding more public-facing electric vehicle chargers in SLO so it’s easy to charge on the go,
Planting 10,000 new trees in streets, parks and open space areas by 2035,
Switching to energy-efficient lighting at City facilities to save money and use less energy, and
Installing a large battery at the Water Treatment Plant to save money and create a more resilient facility.
With generous federal, state and regional funding resources, incentives and technical assistance available to support climate action, it’s becoming easier for organizations and individuals to make sustainable choices in SLO. Over the next few months, the City will share more about Sustainable SLO and suggest ways organizations and individuals can take local action on the climate crisis.
“We’ll be telling this story on social media, local news channels and at in-person events,” said Lucia Pohlman, the City’s sustainability and natural resources analyst. “Everyone can find Sustainable SLO‘in the wild’ to see tangible ways we’re making a difference. Hopefully, this will inspire community members to cut climate pollution and prepare for increasingly hazardous floods and fires. It’s no easy task, but with the community’s help, we can reach our goals and ensure our community thrives into the future.”
It seems he has unintentionally been captured by the influence of “development machine” (which happens to be the title of a 25-year-old University of California book on developers and their practices). A casual reference to “stagnant population growth” does not make population growth itself a legitimate path to economic prosperity. For just a few examples, this EPA report titled “How Small Towns and Cities Can Use Local Assets to Rebuild Their Economies: Lessons from Successful Places” highlights what small cities can do for economic health with a stable population.
It is true that we need to provide for housing, and I like the idea of tasteful additions of duplexes, ADUs and multifamily units as infill development. But, of course, it is the developers who build – not the cities – and developers have shown their true intentions when they have the chance to build expensive housing instead of affordable or middle-cost housing. They go for the higher profit. We are told they have to do this because of the fees, time to process and so forth.
Anyone read The Ox-Bow Incident? You should. It would teach you about what the “market can bear” the intentions of the commercial class – in this case, the railroads. And yes, we are being railroaded into building anything, anywhere, no matter what.
So, back to Stephen’s piece. The population growth issue is being used by the city in support of sprawl development out by Lake Herman Road. Now back up a second and think about population growth and the need to develop outside of the city’s urban footprint. If it were true that we must have population growth to thrive, when does it stop? We just keep having population growth to the end of time? Of course not. This is a failed concept and people should stop saying that we must approve development inconsistent with the city’s General Plan due to stagnant population growth (General Plans regard the constitution of land use development and fealty to them is the law, not a choice).
To be clear, Stephen does not say he supports sprawl development. He doesn’t. In fact, he supports the East Fifth Gateway mixed-use plan. It’s a good plan and needs city initiatives to encourage development. But he does use the “stagnant population” theme, which is troubling.
I suggest that we dig deeper into this concept of population growth and connect the dots of congested roads, long lines at National Parks, food shortages and pollution. There is a connection. It is not likely that we will solve problems like these by having more people.
And lastly, population growth is projected to begin to decline near the end of the century. This is certainly true in the US and California. We could wind up with lots of empty residential development just like we are seeing with the over-built, retail commercial development that we were warned about years ago.
What then, is the answer?
Consider economic development with the increasing need for manufacturing that is green, more local shopping at smaller, more community-based stores, not to mention the arts and entertainment. Our aging population will need services and housing accommodations over the next 25 years.
Thoughtful development with these needs in mind will create a place that people want to visit, shop in and work in. This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea, but it does take hard work and we, the people, need to do our part and help with city revenues for our infrastructure. And maybe with less stress the city council and staff can focus on the future so clearly described in the General Plan.
But they won’t survive without your attendance and support
By Ashton Lyle, July 31, 2023
Benicia’s annual 3rd of July parade is a treasured tradition for my family and many others in town. I remember fondly the many times I walked in the parade (beginning as a seven-year-old with the Benicia Stingrays), and later, the occasions I wandered main street festivities with friends. This year I again found myself strolling First Street, but for the first time, instead of watching the participants, I was concentrated on the sizable crowd gathered downtown and reveling in the beauty of Benicia’s community.
This is an increasingly rare opportunity for me, and not just because, like many others my age, I am increasingly separated from the town’s physical community. Alarmingly, this separation from one’s community is systemic, driven by a decline in community events like our cherished parade. The digital world has continued to encompass more of our lives and America’s towns have necessarily mirrored the expanding proportion of time we live and socialize online. The togetherness of community-wide events has begun to fade from contemporary life, and, in turn, our public interactions have naturally evolved to fit the controversy-focused digital medium they take place on.
The injection of hostility into our relationships with our neighbors is an especially concerning development for the suburbs, where the nature of demarcated living only amplifies the human tendency to show elevated aggression towards strangers. Privacy and the near-total sanctity of one’s home, once reserved for the rural few, have become the standard of American life. Whereas multi-unit housing and city life, broadly constructed, requires constant concessions to the humanity of those around us, in the form of noises, smells, or even time (for example, spent waiting for a shared laundry machine to open), the suburban homeowner is the de-facto ruler of their private domain.
The shift towards understanding the ideal life as an increasingly individualized and private, separated from communal living, is now a cultural norm reflected in our public lives. While it forms a core tenant of the imagined “American Dream,” the perception of self-reliance is disconnected from the reality of living in a community, as each facet of suburban life, from its roads to its schools, is determined through collaborative community (i.e., political) processes. Even as our entertainment media and political discourse highlight independence and self-sufficiency as a value of the highest order, the reality of any number of anti-social tendencies in our society, from polarized discourse to indiscriminate violence, is indicative of the need to reconnect with those with whom we are building a shared future.
The need for community returns me to the 3rd of July parade. The parade, and events like it, are a beautiful reminder that the bitterness and alienation present in the online nature of contemporary life don’t need to transfer into real-life interactions. I’m heartened by the reminder that the discourse of Twitter, CNN, and even blockbuster films is still distinct from how Americans actually interact with each other and how Benicia residents can come together.
During such a controversial age, fostering a growing sense of community in Benicia is essential. I have written in previous columns about the material changes which could keep people in town, namely more housing and social opportunities to keep the existing community together while allowing for new, sustainable growth. But there is, of course, more to be done.
Community-wide events can only thrive with the broad support of residents and are therefore constantly under threat of disappearance. As the City of Benicia struggles to balance its budget, citizens now more than ever must manifest the necessity of city-wide events through their attendance. We can take our friends and families to one of the notable events hosted by the Parks and Recreation Department, for example, Movies Under the Stars. Shared community spaces, like the garden downtown, could be expanded to include new locations in other neighborhoods and the block parties I remember from years past, organized by good-hearted neighbors, can be resurrected. We can support the events of Benicia Main Street, such as the weekly Farmer’s Markets and the recent Waterfront Festival.
All these events work to bring the Benicia community into more frequent contact with each other, allaying the worst aspects of our increasingly digital existence. In a country increasingly defined by its discontent towards one another, pulling our community together, with space for difference and new voices, is a stand against the forces of division.
Benicia can provide future generations with what they need to thrive – without losing its identity
By Ashton Lyle, June 28, 2023
My cousin just graduated in her small town, complete with a ceremony reminiscent of my own experience at Benicia High School. Her school, with only 63 graduates, exists firmly outside the suburban identity of Benicia – but all the same, as I watched these newly minted young adults striding confidently across the gymnasium floor, I was left considering the shared nature of our small-town identity.
A small town’s character is bound up in its most community-minded individuals, the folks who organize around important collective desires. Whether in California or not, these leaders tend to be parents, motivated by the intense desire to provide opportunities for their children. Such is the case in Benicia, a town whose identity is deeply tied to the high quality of education provided to its children.
Education is why my parents moved to Benicia, bringing me to my new home in the golden hills for the first time as a five-year-old. This is a common experience amongst young families in Benicia, who are making sacrifices of all types to find homes and enroll their children into the regionally acclaimed schools. This intense drive to provide for children’s success is admirable.
Quality primary education naturally leads to higher education, and in America, university-level instruction often takes one away from one’s hometown. Meaning that for me and many other young people raised here, the reason why I arrived in Benicia became the reason I left. Like many others across the region, this city is designed to send its children away.
This is the story of my upbringing and of many others in the community. Even after I finished my education and returned to the Bay Area, I did not come home. Why was that, and what does it say about the continuity of Benicia’s community?
First, leaving one’s hometown is a privilege not guaranteed by growing up with access to good schools. Many of my classmates have not left their own hometowns, largely for economic reasons, a common experience as between30% and50% of young people live with their parents. There is a vicious cycle of stagnation everywhere in America, epitomized by the inability to afford the move to better opportunities, which is difficult to leave behind without generational wealth.
Of course, choosing to continue living in one’s hometown as a young person is a perfectly acceptable choice, especially because Benicia and its surrounding communities have many positive aspects. In addition to the incredible weather, culture, and people, the Bay Area is also notable for its jobs, a consideration that is especially important for young people looking to build financial independence. Even better, these jobs are the type of employment that allows for a future unburdened by concerns about making rent and servicing debt.
Benicia can evolve to keep its young people while still providing them with the economic possibilities they need to thrive. The town will never be for everyone; some will always be drawn to the big city, and others to rural tranquility. However, I know many of Benicia’s parents want to keep their children close, and it’s worth considering what policy choices could help keep families and the broader community together over the long term.
Where Benicia falls short in comparison to its neighbors is its ability to offer the same opportunities – in business, leisure, and otherwise – which allow for easy connection to other early-career workers. The problem facing current residents is how to provide essential social and economic possibilities for young people while maintaining Benicia’s identity.
This intersects in complex ways with the rise of remote work. As office work has become less frequent for many in the professional class since COVID, the value of housing has risen in the areas surrounding major cities, including Benicia.While I believe we need to increase the town’s housing stock, it is also true that in order to compete for the attention of young people looking to make a home within neighboring towns, Benicia must work to maximize what makes it so special.
I see two main areas that would provide increased opportunities for young adults while improving the city’s livability. One is Benicia’s connection and ease of transit to neighboring cities that provide services and experiences incompatible with the nature of small-town life. For example, Vallejo contains many shops and amenities from a movie theatre to big-box retailers that are currently infeasible or out of step with the size of Benicia. This means transit connections should continue to be built out, for example, by further exploring the potential for a 9th St. ferry, building increased bus connections, and allocating funds to better maintain our roads.
The other avenue would be to double down on what makes Benicia great to begin with – our downtown. The walkable, mixed-used character of downtown, with its intoxicating mix of neighborliness, town events, art galleries, and small businesses, draws visitors and residents alike to the area. The city is looking into expanding mixed-used zoning to areas like theEastern Gateway, an amendment that I am happy to see passed, as it not only invites the business and social spaces which attract young people but will also expand our tax base. These sustainable developments, which could expand eventually to include the Raley’s and Safeway shopping centers, build on Benicia’s historic character while providing more opportunities for business and community growth.
These new additions can continue the tradition of Benicia’s small-business-focused downtown, while also being free to experiment with new types of buildings and businesses which are better suited to the contemporary remote work city. Co-working spaces, formal and otherwise, would bring people to the Eastern Gateway, incentivizing more services within the new “midtown,” providing an alternative focal point to 1st Street. This would help alleviate some of the parking issues facing Benicia’s downtown, however, the development is also only a short drive away, meaning workers drawn to the area would still be likely to patronize existing businesses and keep the community thriving. By providing additional locations for remote work and social gatherings in town, these new areas incentivize young workers to spend their time in and amongst the community, making our town more engaging for both current and future residents.
The last few years have signaled the start of a new status quo in the nature of small-town life, both built by and increasingly unbound from the concept of a traditional California suburb. Planning a Benicia better suited for the age of remote work and open to increased social and business opportunities is the key to providing a lifetime of opportunities for its children and residents of all ages, allowing the community to stay and grow together.
Author’s Note: In the spirit of full transparency, I am related to the recently appointed Planning Commissioner for the City of Benicia. That said, the opinions expressed in this piece are fully my own, they were not unduly influenced by our relationship, and should not be taken to represent his or anyone else’s opinion.