Can San Diego Grow Up?

By Frank LandisConservation Chair

Yes, this is not the kind of remark that an ex-Angeleno like me should be making in this part of the world, even if it is intended as a lame pun, as here. I'm writing this as the Lilac Fire burns in the San Luis Rey watershed, which is an event you probably didn't want to remember, but this isn't another column about fire safety.

Here's the issue: if you believe what I promote for CNPSSD, the solution to many of San Diego's woes, including losing homes to fire, is that we're all supposed to put solar panels on our roofs, use public transit, and ride bikes everywhere but on our wildlands, because mountain bikes are tearing up ecological reserves. Most importantly, we are to stop building single family homes in high-fire areas; instead we are to build apartments, condominiums, and town-homes near transit lines. In other words, we're supposed to grow up, not out, hence the lame pun in the title.

Sounds wonderful, right? I'm sure everybody with a native garden wants to replace it with a multistory granny flat, as well as subdividing their multistory homes into apartments, as well as lobby hard for bike lanes and bus stops in their neighborhood. Doesn't that sound great to you?

No? That's what I wanted to write about. There is this fundamental contradiction at the heart of what I do. I don't have the answer, and I don't even know if a complete answer is possible. Still, we need to realize that some of our ideals conflict with each other, if only so that someone like me doesn't sound like a condescending idiot or worse when trying to advocate for native plants.

On one side of this issue is CNPS' mission to get everybody to protect, grow, and love California native plants. One of the best ways to do this is to get people out hiking and gardening, and the more time they spend outside, the better. In years past, this was easy, because gas was cheap, subdivisions were small, and if you didn't just want to hike out your back yard, it was easy to take a long trip up to the mountains, out to the desert, or to ride a horse across, say, Del Mar Mesa without seeing anything other than cattle. A lot of our current environmentalists grew up this way on the edge of town. If you believe Richard Louv's theory of Nature Deficit Disorder, getting out into nature is a good way to stay healthy and sane. Living out in nature is a great way to do this, and it's part of the impetus for all this suburban sprawl into the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) throughout the West. San Diego is scarcely alone in helping people sprawl this way, and quite a lot of CNPS members, perhaps a majority, live in this type of environment or grew up here. We have fewer members who live in the inner city and in apartments, and this may be why CNPSers are generally older and whiter than the population of California as a whole.

On the other side is the whole issue of adapting for climate change. The City of San Diego barely existed before fossil fuels came along, so our whole growth pattern has been predicated on easy access to huge amounts of energy, most of it from fossil fuels. Our dependency shows up in urban sprawl, which depends on cheap energy for cars. It also shows up in the way we import 85% of our water, a vast majority of our food, energy, and people (all possible due to cheap energy). Also as a consequence of cheap energy, we've shown an unfortunate predilection for building in places, like Mission Valley or the WUI, that are prone to natural disasters like floods and fires, because there's this notion that if we just manage our resources right, we can tame the floods and break the fires with some clever bulldozer work or something.

Now we're faced with the end of fossil fuels sometime this century. Yes, it's conceivable that someone will invent nuclear fusion to give us huge amounts of cheap electricity. It's even somewhat more likely that future batteries will store as much energy as does gasoline, so that we can have an electric 4WD truck that goes 400 miles between charges, along with electric bulldozers and other electrified heavy equipment. However, it's much more likely that we'll have to do more with a lot less energy, that effectively all of that energy will be electricity, and that our best electricity storage will be less energy dense than are current fossil fuels, so vehicles will be smaller and more range limited.

In this environment, the sensible thing is to cluster people closer by building denser housing with more stories (cutting down on transportation distances), working out bicycle and public transportation systems, putting up energy gathering systems like solar panels and wind turbines every place they'll fit, and doing other things (like planting massive numbers of trees) to try to ameliorate climate change as much as we can. Still, transforming San Diego into New York Del Mar would be a monumental task even if this wasn't earthquake country, and that's even before we consider the obvious conflict above, and the costs associated with it.

I'll take the costs in reverse order. As I've written before, my wife and I are working to decarbonize our fairly average suburban home. With the cost of solar panels, an electric car, a (currently hypothetical) house battery capable of charging the car, and switching our appliances over to electricity, we're going to spend over $100,000 on the project, more if we can make two electric cars work. I publicize this number because it's a painful reality check for us environmentalists. Many of us would like to see San Diego's roofs all paved with solar panels, rather than seeing rare desert plants and habitats destroyed for huge solar plants, as at Ivanpah. Unfortunately, it appears to be more financially feasible, at least for now, to build big desert solar than it is for the average San Diego household to spend more than their annual income to decarbonize their homes. We'll still all have to decarbonize, but we have to realize that it's quite expensive right now, and that costs for sustainable technology need to come down and also to be subsidized by government on levels, which means someone needs to be taxed to pay for the subsidies. It's a wicked problem.

That's the financial cost. There's also the social cost, something I see every time my little electric car gets cut off on the freeway by a big roaring SUV or oversized boy-toy truck. Simply put, living in an apartment, riding a bike and taking public transit is for poor people. At the very least, this seems to be the attitude of those who like to conspicuously display their wealth with big cars, big homes, and big gardens. This last, I suspect, is what will frustrate us the most. We love our gardens dearly, and giving them up is going to sting, especially if some people give them up for the good of society, while others selfishly keep them.

I suspect similar social costs have played out recently in attempts to turn failed golf courses in Escondido and Poway into condominiums. Neighbors voted down both these projects. Similar attitudes might be behind neighborhood opposition across the San Diego to densification. As a result, we hypocritically seem to be okay with other neighborhoods densifying, but not our own, and that attitude effectively inhibits attempts to grow San Diego up, rather than sprawling it out.

Ultimately, though, we in CNPS have to deal with the central problem: how do we simultaneously soak people in nature and tame sprawl? It's another wicked problem, but it's not completely insoluble. For kids, at least, we have any number of urban canyons, even if we also have to deal with homeless people living in them. Still, we, as individuals and as society, really need to think long and hard about what we value. What's the cost of that big home in the country that we love so much? How do we prepare ourselves to watch it burn down some random year? Does even building it cause harm to the surrounding wildlands and to future generations, and if it does, does our current pleasure offset that harm? If, conversely, we're advocating for densification, public transit, solar roofs, and so on, how do we feel about putting these in our own neighborhoods? If that's a repugnant idea, why should we prescribe it for "those other people?" Should we trust government planners to figure out how to make this all work, or should we try to come up with solutions of our own and promulgate those?

These aren't easy questions, but they are ones I think about. If you have any thoughts on them, feel free to share them at