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Can San Diego’s ambitious environmental plan make it a test case for green urbanism?

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The city of 1.3 million set laudable and legally binding sustainability goals in December. But making the Climate Action Plan a reality is a completely different challenge.

When San Diego passed a far-reaching Climate Action Plan last December, there was real reason to celebrate. The nation’s eighth-largest city, a poster child for Southern California suburbia, had passed a far-reaching, progressive environmental policy (with a Republican mayor in charge) that not only advocated for important goals, such as slashing carbon emissions in half by 2035, but made them legally binding. It was a bound promise suggesting a level of civic engagement and vision that would make the city a trailblazer for others, hitting benchmarks that perhaps have never been hit by any other city.

More than half a year later, that vision is not only undefined, but leadership is also sorely lacking, according to environmentalists and urban planners. Critics argue that Mayor Kevin Faulconer should take advantage of the bully pulpit of his office to convey a solid vision of how can and will transform itself for a greener future.

"He needs to be actively saying this is a cultural shift that we need to be making together, and we haven’t seen that yet," says Nicole Capretz, Executive Director of the Climate Action Campaign, a local environmental group. "We haven’t given up, and we’re still working with him, but that leadership hasn’t materialized yet."

San Diego’s ambitious climate goal has placed it at the forefront of cities pushing for a greener future. But it’s also landed local government squarely on the front lines of a debate that more and more of their colleagues will be having over the coming decade; how to make fundamental shifts in land use, transportation, and energy usage that radically reshape how our cities operate.

Reaching milestone sustainability goals may still seem like the stuff of science fiction, but the reality is that it will take both a large vision and attention to the minutiae of city planning to turn urban centers green. As Cody Hooven, Chief Sustainability Officer City of San Diego, says, the goals have been set, a plan has been passed, and the technology is there. It’s the communication and collaboration that present the true challenges.

"We have one of the leading plans in the country, a Republican mayor, and many, many ambitious goals, including having half the city bike, walk, or take public transit for their commute by 2035," says Hooven. "But the most important, and more difficult, part is making sure the city is bought in, and all the pieces fit together. The people part is the hardest."

Hooven says City Hall is not only committed to the shifts, but has been putting plans in place, such as the May Climate Funding Plan Funding and Implementation Report, which budgets $32.7 million toward sustainability goals, including $19 million to transit and land use projects. She takes the feedback in stride—"people are doing their jobs and telling us to do more, that’s their jobs as advocates"—but says they’re moving ahead on very complicated set of priorities.

"Density is how we increase biking, walking, and transit," she says. "We’re trying to respond to the community, but we’re still trying to work through zoning and density issues. In order to achieve these goals, we need to shift a lot of the ways we’re doing things. You can’t have an energy change overnight."

Better transit options, considered a cornerstone of the plan to reduce emissions, also requires a lot better information (Hooven has been focusing on open data initiatives to get more actionable info for future transit adjustments).

But the goals will require a huge shift in a city where 84 percent of the population drives to work, according to Census Bureau figures. Getting to a point where half the city gets to work without driving a car by 2035 would require a serious ramping up of current transit initiatives; according to a report by Circulate San Diego, based on current projections, that figure will only reach 14.8 percent.

Capretz says the city personifies typical Southern California sprawl, and traditional planning has maxed-out single family homes and the freeway network. Development needs to focus on revitalizing the urban core and transforming an old cultural standard to a new one.

"Unfortunately right now, we’re still in the patting on the back phase, and we don’t have time for that," says Capretz. "The first goals for 2020 are already coming up. We have a need to make significant changes now, across our whole urban landscape, and we’re not seeing that sort of leadership yet."

According to Joe LaCava, a consultant who specializes in local land use and urban policy issues, one of the issues is that regional and state agencies have some sway over transport, and the changes they’re supposed to make will, in large part, help San Diego meet its 2020 goals. But despite deadlines that are, in some cases, decades away, the city still needs to act now.

"I think the city is just starting to wrap its head around this," he says. "The city itself has to go talk to the neighbors, residents, and merchants, talk about what this climate plan is all about. The whole scale and scope hasn’t been articulated by the city."

To increase density, the city needs to push new zoning laws and change land-use plans, but that’s complicated by the way San Diego is organized. Known as the city of villages, the sprawling city contains 42 different communities, each with its own land use plans. While walkable urbanism has been a focus of new development in many cities, and shown to produce more high-value real estate, it hasn’t been as prevalent in San Diego. Only about 23 percent of San Diego development over the last five years could be considered walkable.

"If we don’t start acting like we’re going to do it now, we’ll never get there," says Howard Blackson, a local urban designer. "We’re still using the same ‘60s tools that we used to create the suburbia we wanted. We have to respond with our urbanism and land use. There’s a huge disconnect in the city, and it’s been like that for a long time."

According to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the city plans on updating the transportation master plan and holding regular updates about the progress of the CAP. Hooven and her colleagues are building out the blueprint. But as early work on achieving these ambitious goals suggest, there are still numerous political and planning challenges ahead.

"I would tell other cities to go for it," says Hooven. "What holds a lot of government back is being afraid of the naysayers. A plan like this is going to be hard to implement, but it’s important to be a trailblazer."