Finding Our Way Out of the Sprawl: An Interview with Mark Valentine

by Lisa Mastny


New Dream spoke with Mark Valentine, a sustainability consultant and member of our Board of Directors, about the livability challenges facing American communities today and the glimmers of hope he sees around the country.

As part of your work, you consult with donors in California who are supporting efforts to move communities away from what you call a “dysfunctional pattern of development.” Describe the challenges you’re seeing.

There are several reasons for the sprawling, dysfunctional development that we encounter in many parts of California (and nationally). For one, the actual price of a gallon of gas that we pay at the pump doesn’t take into account the health and environmental damage created by extracting, refining, and distributing gasoline. If those and other “externalities” were factored in, the cost of gas would easily double or triple, resulting in markedly less enthusiasm for auto-dependent communities.

Another driver of dysfunction is the fact that transportation budgets are skewed toward roads and highways. Nationally, we spend 65 percent of our transportation dollars on roads, highways, and bridges and allocate only some 13 percent to mass transit, on average. Yet mass transit can yield multiple benefits, including cleaner air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, more pedestrian- and bike-friendly communities, and reduced time spent in traffic. According to studies, drivers in California’s largest metropolitan regions spend an estimated two full days a year stuck in traffic!

Finally, in order to increase revenue, many cities and counties have focused their attention on promoting development that generates revenue from sales tax as well as property tax. This is particularly the case in California, where for over 30 years we’ve had a law on the books, Proposition 13, that severely limits the rate at which property taxes can increase. The result has been a proliferation of strip mall developments, big box retailers, and auto malls along major arterials. This, in turn, has led to the visual blight that we see along many highways and secondary roads, where you only know that you’ve left one community and entered another when you see the pattern repeated. In some locales, regional revenue-sharing mitigates this pressure, but in most places there is constant pressure to convert open space and agricultural land into commercial space.

What can we do, as a country and as individual communities, to turn this situation around? Can you provide examples of some of the positive initiatives you’ve seen?

For a start, we need to move away from the sprawl model and toward compact, walkable/bikeable communities that are also well served by transit. For that to be feasible, we need to redesign the way we plan to accommodate growth in our cities and increase the investments we make in transit. Luckily, there are a number of groups working on these issues at the state and federal levels. 

Organizations like TransForm in California are pushing to restore state funding to transit. They and their allies are also exploring ways to make it easier for regions to raise money directly to support transit operations. At the federal level, the Transportation for America campaign is working to secure a balanced transportation bill from Congress that will support robust investments in transit as well as in roads and highways. Given that federal funding is a critical component of most transit projects, it’s important we get Congress to make the right decision.

One of the most innovative ideas is being advanced by MoveLA. In 2008, they led the campaign to get voters in L.A. County to adopt Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that is expected to generate $40 billion over 30 years, with the majority of these funds being allocated toward transit expansion and operation costs. Now MoveLA has formulated a proposal that would allow the region to fast-track the construction of transit projects. Called the 30/10 Initiative, it proposes using the long-term revenue from the sales tax as collateral for long-term bonds and a federal loan, which will allow the region’s transit agency, Metro, to build 12 key mass transit projects in 10 years rather than in 30. In the process, an estimated 160,000 jobs would be created and more than 190 million fewer miles logged in cars, with the attendant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution. If approved by Congress, this could serve as a model for financing the development and operations of transit systems nationally.

What role do consumption and our wider consumer culture play in many of the problems you’re seeing?

On the one hand, there is the archetypal notion that to achieve the American Dream you should strive to own a single-family home with a big yard in the suburbs. Considering that there was a time when many American cities were dangerous, polluted places, the desire to flee to the suburbs, particularly to raise a family, made some sense. However, times have changed. Many cities are much more livable and safe than they once were.

In addition, we need to acknowledge that we can no longer afford to subsidize that particular “dream,” which for decades was made possible by cheap gas and, more recently, by access to cheap credit. It’s also been supported by a national policy to subsidize home ownership through the home mortgage-interest deduction, which by some estimates costs the nation approximately $100 billion in tax revenue annually. In light of recent discussions about reducing the national debt, various proposals are being floated that would gradually eliminate this tax break, which generally benefits more affluent people.

In the meantime, you have millions of young people looking for housing near where they work so that they can walk, bike, or use transit. You also have millions of older couples who have finished rearing their children and who are seeking opportunities to have more active, culturally stimulating lives and are looking for places to live in town that require less maintenance and more convenience. Thus far, the real estate market is underproducing this type of housing while we have millions of empty house sitting in abandoned subdivisions

What do you see as the bright spots in what you’ve described as a fairly bleak situation? Do you remain optimistic about the direction the country is headed?

I think it was Antonio Gramsci who said that he was “a pessimist because of intelligence and an optimist by will.” I have to say that the phrase pretty much captures my perspective. I see a society facing huge problems related to the inequitable structure of the economy and the mounting threats posed by climate change. However, at a local, state, and regional level, I see promising trends.

The fact that every major metropolitan region in California has to develop something called a Sustainable Community Strategy is remarkable in and of itself. And last year, California voters rejected a ballot initiative backed by Big Oil that would have gutted the state’s climate change law. On a more granular level, I love the fact that in many cities you see rising demand for services like car sharing.

Last year, SPUR (the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) put together a fascinating exhibition on DIY Urbanism, which featured low-cost, citizen-powered innovations in making our cities more livable. This included the West Oakland Greening Project, which started off creating outdoor living rooms using discarded sofas for outdoor seating. At first, these installations were regularly hauled away as trash, but the city of Oakland has begun to accept these installations and to offer permits as long as liability insurance is purchased.

Another innovation that I love is PARK(ing) Day, which is now an annual, worldwide event that invites (cajoles) citizens to transform metered parking spots into temporary “parklets.” In 2010, 850 parklets were created in 183 cities in 30 countries.

In a similar vein, San Francisco has been experimenting with a Pavement to Parks program, which is designed to temporarily repurpose those dead spaces we often encounter at big intersections and along the sides of wide streets by creating small plazas and parks. Using inexpensive street furniture and clever use of plantings, “useless” spaces have been transformed into little oases and points of connection in the community. 

Another phenomenon profiled in the SPUR exhibit was the growth in underground markets where small-scale producers can connect directly with consumers. For many aspiring cooks and bakers, breaking into the public farmer’s market circuit can be challenging as regulations demand that prepared food be made in commercial kitchens. To overcome this barrier, the founder of forageSF (which promotes the harvest and consumption of local, wild plants), Iso Rabins, conceived of the idea of creating an Underground Market where unlicensed producers can sell to shoppers that become “members” of a private club as part of their admission to the market. The idea is to incubate businesses that can eventually enter the commercial mainstream.

So I see lots of small innovations that I hope, someday, will coalesce around a more sustainable society. The question is how quickly this transformation can occur.

What role can the funding community play in supporting the kinds of shifts that you’re describing?

First, it’s important to remember that the majority of philanthropy in this country is directed toward educational institutions, supporting the activities of religious congregations, and dealing with issues like hunger, poverty, and homelessness. Only a small percentage is directed toward supporting efforts designed to promote new policies that could shape a truly sustainable economy. In addition, many foundations suffered significant losses in the recent economic downturn, which has depressed their giving.

That said, looking at one facet of the sustainability agenda, there are certainly far more funders invested in working on energy and climate change issues. There are also more funders focused on different aspects of the sustainable urban agenda, looking at creative ways to promote dense but livable communities that are socially and economically vibrant and much more resource efficient than the current sprawl model. I also see many more foundations investing in groups working at the nexus of traditional environmental quality issues (air and water pollution) and their impacts on low-income communities of color. 

As regards the issues that New Dream works on, I worry that too many funders think that we’ve cracked the “consumption conundrum” by cranking up market demand for recycled and organic products and compact fluorescent light bulbs and the like. From my perspective, those successes fall under the heading of “necessary but not sufficient.” Instead, we need to find foundations willing to invest in the work of groups like New Dream, which are trying to decouple the notion that we need perpetual growth to increase prosperity.

As Tim Jackson noted in his book Prosperity Without Growth, a business-as-usual scenario is untenable from both an economic and ecological perspective. If the globe’s population crests at 9 billion as currently forecast, and all of those people aspire to live like Americans or Europeans, we’d need to grow the global economy by 1,500 percent, and even with technological improvements the impact on our ecosystems would be catastrophic. We need to, in the words of Jackson, find a way to “flourish within our ecological limits.” 

One small step in that direction would be to update our economic models so that the true cost of the production and consumption of oil were factored into its prices. At the other end of the spectrum, we need to factor into our economic models the true value of the services we derive from healthy ecosystems (clean drinking water, carbon sinks, protection from storm surges, raw material for agricultural products and pharmaceuticals, etc.). While some foundations are supporting work in these areas, more support will be required if we’re to build a robust policy framework.

You recently joined the board of the Center for a New American Dream. What drew you to New Dream, and what role do you see the organization playing in addressing the challenges you’ve described above?

I’ve followed the activities of New Dream since its founding back in 1997. I applauded its early work on promoting ideas like green procurement for public agencies and redefining the notion of the American Dream as being about something more than gratifying every material desire. Now, I see it building on that foundation by positioning itself as a locus for disseminating new ideas about how to restructure our communities and our economy so that we get more balance in our lives at a personal level and we begin to build societies that are truly equitable and sustainable.

This is the work of lifetimes, so we can’t rush it. Yet, on the other hand, as we look at people like Bill McKibben and Gus Speth (a fellow New Dream board member) being willing to get arrested in order to register their opposition to a planned pipeline that will carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of California, we need to urgently redirect our energy economy if we’re to avoid calamitous ecological impacts. This is an exciting time to be part of New Dream’s board, and I look forward to helping the organization extend its reach and impact.

Mark Valentine is the founder of ReFrame It Consulting in San Francisco, which provides strategic program design and organizational development services to groups working in sustainability and resource management.