California’s Greenbelt Alliance Standing Up for Smart Growth for 50 Years and Looking Ahead5 min read

Greenbelt Alliance, the San Francisco Bay Area’s advocate for open spaces and vibrant places, celebrated its 50th anniversary last week with a big bash at the San Francisco’s Presidio, complete with fresh produce and wine from the Bay Area’s greenbelt. Proclamations and commendations poured in to mark the occasion, from Assemblymember Mark Leno—who was the night’s featured speaker—as well as Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, Assemblymembers Fiona Ma, Loni Hancock, and Jared Huffman, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The event was a chance to celebrate the legacy of many people who have stood up for smart growth and conservation over the last half-century—and fire up the crowd for the work to come.

Greenbelt Alliance’s grassroots activism and regional thinking have helped shape the way the Bay Area looks today, with its spectacular, accessible greenbelt of natural areas and working farms.

A few highlights of the organization’s history include:

• Founded in 1958 as People for Open Space in the living room of Bay Area housing and conservation activist Dorothy Erskine, Greenbelt Alliance’s first victory saved the hills surrounding the East Bay’s San Pablo Reservoir.

• Since then, Greenbelt Alliance has helped to protect over 1.1 million acres of open space permanently. It has helped pass city and county policies that protect well over 1 million more acres of farmland and natural areas.

• Greenbelt Alliance has endorsed the creation of over 60,000 homes in existing Bay Area cities, instead of out on the greenbelt. These model developments include homes people can afford, close to jobs, services, and good public transportation, offering a sustainable way for the region to grow.

• Today, Greenbelt Alliance has offices in six cities around the region. Its award-winning research, regional vision, and grassroots local action encourage smart growth to create a greener, better Bay Area.

Greenbelt Alliance takes a grassroots approach, educating and mobilizing local residents—in towns from San Jose to Concord to Santa Rosa—to have a voice in how their communities grow. Greenbelt Alliance’s approach is somewhat unique: rather than simply protecting land and stopping sprawl, we also promote better development alternatives to accommodate growth in a sustainable way.

In a time of high gas prices, an unstable housing market, and a changing climate, Greenbelt Alliance’s work grows ever more relevant.

Coming Together

A confluence of factors makes this an especially exciting time for Greenbelt Alliance’s efforts to encourage more sustainable development:

• The state is starting to take a more thoughtful approach to infrastructure investment. In other words, it is starting to see how transportation investments can do more to improve people’s mobility and help focus growth, instead of fostering a downward spiral of sprawl and traffic.

• Regional planning is becoming a reality. Agencies like the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission are working with local governments to define “Priority Conservation Areas” and “Priority Development Areas,” and provide some funds to make the plans come to fruition.

• The market is encouraging smarter growth. High gas prices are encouraging people to switch to public transportation; ridership is at record levels. The unstable housing market reinforces this: the foreclosure crisis hit much harder in remote suburbs than in central areas. Demand for in-town living remains strong in the midst of the housing downturn. Demographic shifts—a national population of more empty nesters, fewer couples with children, and far more singles—will also keep in-town living in demand.

The Climate Connection

And finally, climate change is creating a new imperative for smarter growth.

The connection is clear. Transportation is the largest single source of greenhouse gases, accounting for 40% of the state’s emissions, and 50% of the Bay Area’s. Land use determines transportation needs—whether, how much, and how far people need to drive—and that has a direct impact on the climate.

Over recent decades, the amount that Californians drive has increased steadily, and is projected to continue rising if sprawling development patterns do not change. Recent research shows that this steady increase in driving will cancel out any greenhouse gas reductions achieved by using hybrids and new fuel technologies. The bottom line: unless California changes its development patterns to reduce driving, its greenhouse gas pollution will increase.

California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32, requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. A new report, released on Monday, indicates that much more greenhouse gas reduction is possible through smarter growth than the state’s current plan accounts for.

Greenbelt Alliance, together with a statewide coalition called ClimatePlan, has been a strong voice for improving land use to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

Moving Ahead

Today, Greenbelt Alliance can build on a half-century of experience while seizing today’s opportunities to move the region and the state toward smarter growth and a greener future.

You can be a part of that future: Greenbelt Alliance is a membership-based organization. It is made up of people who care about making the Bay Area a better place to live—as well as a model for sustainability for the state and the nation.

Now is a more exciting time than ever to join us.

Find out more about Greenbelt Alliance and the benefits of membership now, and become a voice for a better Bay Area.

Jeremy Madsen it the Executive Director of the Greenbelt Alliance. From 2001 to 2005, he was Greenbelt Alliance’s Field Director, leading the organization’s policy campaigns and supervising the work of all its field offices. Previously at the San Francisco Foundation he helped to launch the Great Communities Collaborative and supported social equity, affordable housing, and smart growth efforts around the Bay Area. He holds a master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Oregon.