Robert Kaplan, a reporter for Atlantic Monthly magazine, just wrote a book after traveling the country for two years. He checked out how cities are planning for their future growth, and the related problems.
Things like traffic and smog, and preserving the quality of life.
I haven't read his book, "An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future." But if it's anything like his Nov. 5 talk to 400 leaders from six counties in our region, it has some keen insights to ponder.
"The growth in the Sacramento region is really ground zero for changes I see in America," he told the group, gathered at the Convention Center to discuss long-term transportation planning.
We're sort of a national test market on how to solve these issues. The question is whether we'll be a model of success or failure.
Over the next 25 years, we'll have 1 million more people in our metroplex. That means it's time to get down to brass tacks. Officials need to agree on a regional solution to traffic; how to pay for new roads and mass transit; and how to keep the air clean enough so the feds don't cut off future transportation funding. It's a tall order, especially when so many people -- including environmentalists and developers -- have to find a common ground.
Kaplan predicts that relatively soon America will no longer have unlimited land available to grow into. That requires a new way of thinking. Communities must reinvent how they grow without wiping out all the open space and sucking dry all the water.
What Kaplan sees emerging are communities some miles away from the urban downtown areas. Rather than call them suburbs, he prefers "post-urban pods," and compares them to the ancient Greek city-states. He sees them becoming increasingly independent, yet interrelated so that most commuting is between satellite communities and not via the historical routes between suburbs and downtowns. Just one big corridor of linked communities.
He sees that happening now between Tucson and Phoenix, and from Eugene, Ore., all the way up to Vancouver, British Columbia.
Within these corridors, he predicts racial lines will blur into a "beige society" he calls Polynesian Mestizo. And the middle class will split into an upper middle, and a lower middle of "rusted pickup" types. (Straddled, I guess, by those with one good car and a rusted pickup.)
Now, some of us would call this, essentially, urban sprawl -- the kind that has made Los Angeles and San Jose ever-so popular. Last I checked, that was pretty much the development pattern that we don't want. Still, we seem to be headed that way along our freeway system. There's Roseville, Folsom, El Dorado Hills, North Natomas, Elk Grove and downtown.
And cars that run on internal combustion aren't going away in the next couple of decades, Kaplan says, mainly because "oil companies are discovering oil everywhere."
Water, however, isn't unlimited. And ultimately that will determine the limits of growth, especially in California and the Southwest.
This nation was founded, Kaplan notes, by visionaries who set up a system of checks and balances to avoid problems that could cause a crash. Such good ol' "constructive pessimism" is what we need now at a regional level, he figures, to achieve clean air through effective land-use and transportation planning.
But, as Kaplan says, sometimes it takes a dictator to get anything done among bickering factions.
Later, he expounded on a few issues.
Downtowns: "They're coming back, more as `Disneyfied' tourist bubbles, sort of `nostaglified' versions of what the downtown used to be."
The biggest challenge is getting people to come on nights and weekends. And urban developments are risky because "you don't know if they'll turn out. Things that work are a lot of times by accident."
Telecommuting: Kaplan figures the Internet and telecommuting may not work enough on a mass level to have any discernible impact on commute traffic. Office workers like the social contact of working and talking with other live human beings, and they enjoy time away from home. He bets telecommuters will be the exception, not the rule.
Leadership: A local environmentalist suit to block highway construction plans shows how a lack of leadership to build consensus on transportation and land-use planning can lead to decisionmaking gridlock. (West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said it well at last week's gathering: "We all have the ability to stop one another.")
Going cross country, Kaplan reached conclusions about which cities act on their problems and which don't.
He points to Atlanta, where, "you have a united elite." St. Louis, on the other hand, is a "disaster," where opposing factions can't find common ground.
His message is clear. Mediate our differences. Move forward on some solutions. Get some traction. It's either that, or gridlock. Literally.