This year’s Great Valley Center conference was unusually duplicitous, even by the Center’s relaxed standards. Its title, “At the tipping point,” contrasted to the presentations throughout the two days, creating a sense of cognitive dissonance attributable, no doubt, to the Center’s recent merger with the University of California.
The conference poster invited its viewers to look upward at a map of mid-California projected on the sky above a tightrope walker the soles of whose shoes were also above us. I found no one at the conference willing to think about what this poster might mean.
The conference covered every aspect of urban growth but how to slow it down. One participant mentioned the term, “carrying capacity,” once, but the panel thought he was speaking in a Native American language and forgave him for it in the interest of multi-cultural harmony.
The only two resource agencies visible at the conference were the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and the state Department of Water Resources. The San Joaquin Valley was recently designated the worst polluted air basin in the US, but not one session addressed this issue, however there were sessions on mass transit, integrating land use and transportation decision making, bikes and walks, and “Greenstop: California’s first sustainable highway rest area”. (Caltrans, not a resource agency, was one of the conference’s “Silver Sponsors.”)
Water was a big topic at the conference and Tim Quinn, vice president of Metropolitan Water District, was a featured speaker and session presenter. Quinn filled the Valley audience with a sense of trust and confidence that Southern California was not interested in Valley water. Session topics included how water will shape the Valley’s future, water transfers (the debate between North and South), water quality, and prioritizing agricultural conservation easements (a UCB report, using cutting edge mapping technology to show that ag easements should be put on flood plains near levees to prevent more subdivisions – because the state has to pay if the homes are flooded).
Growth sessions included:
· Challenges and opportunities for master-planned communities
· Growing rural economies with entrepreneurial community colleges
· What every planner should know about air quality
· After the flush: Reclaimed water strategies
· Sustainable housing
· Green building: A chance for the Valley
· Timber! Modern forestry policy, practices and wildlife
· Green energy powerhouse
· Affordability in today’s housing market
· The man from Brazil, Jaime Lerner (a feature speaker, mayor of a large Brazilian city, who spoke on lower-tech mass transit)
· Land use and planning for dummies
· The Valley blueprint project: A regional approach
· Population challenges
· Wow! Look at Valley downtowns
· Wireless for rural communities
· A featured speech by former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros
Agriculture was also considered:
· Gardens as the center of a community
· Sustainable food moves beyond a niche market
· Alternative fuels: What is the opportunity?
There was also, as always with the Center, an emphasis on how to co-opt local leaders who might pop up here and there to disturb the smooth transition from San Joaquin to San Fernando:
· Grassroots lobbying – how, who, when?
· Promatoras: More than community health workers
· Strategies for engaging rural community leaders
· E Pluribus Unum: Multi-ethnic collaboration for community action
The water discussion, while at times pretending broader perspectives, was continually dragged down into the whirlpool of the Friant lawsuit. On the second morning, a group of state Assembly members – Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto), Nicole Parra (D-Hanford), Roger Neillo (R-Sacramento) and Juan Arambula (D-Fresno) – gave a spirited performance of the point of view of Fresno (City and County) and eastern Tulare and Kern counties’ farmers. The Friant Water Users Authority point of view was also ably represented in every session on water during the conference. When one participant of the session on transfers asked if some of the Friant-Kern water eventually ends up “going over the hill,” he was directly contradicted by Quinn, the representative of DWR and several Tulare farmers. Quinn also said that water would not be a constraint on future Southern California growth. An urbane, sophisticated man, he also mentioned global warming, noting, however, that Metropolitan lacked adequate data on it.
This GVC conference was notable in the experience of frequent attendees of these conferences over the years for its embrace of the principle, Growth Is Inevitable and an Exciting Challenge, and its evident amnesia about agriculture – Valley Farmers Are Large Landowners. Gone was any lip service to agriculture or any awareness or wildlife species and habitat. A few sessions on medical topics substituted for any sense of environmentally caused diseases. The conference seemed to some of us to be part and parcel of what we are calling the Springtime Assault on Valley Natural Resources.
The most offensive aspect of the conference from a social and economic justice perspective was the recognition that two cultures – Anglo and Hispanic – dominate, and that the Anglo culture will get rich off development while the Hispanic is encouraged to develop Third World methods of dealing with political disenfranchisement, educational disadvantage, and health problems arising from environmental degradation. If the Hispanic leaders do not challenge development, the Center will do its best to see that some funding trickles down to local Hispanic leaders. This strategy displays the decades of partisan political experience among top executives at the Center and a heavy dose of UC flak.
The best session was E Pluribus Unum: Multi-ethnic collaboration for community action, an interesting dog-and-pony show, led by Dr. Isao Fujimoto of UCD, displaying a new generation of Valley urban minority youth, discussing strategies for dealing with ethnic gang conflicts, cultural respect, poverty, school, housing and organizing, using tools established in many cases decades ago by a long list of organizations – from Alinksy’s to the Friends Service Committee’s – to help Appalachia del Oeste. Notably missing was any sense of union organizing.
Those of us impressed by UC Merced’s drive to establish a research medical school in the Valley look forward soon to studies like: Differential Rates of Asthma among Children of Anglo-Saxon, African-American, Native American, Hmong, Laotian, Miao, Cambodian, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Mestizo and Mixteco Descent. We think, if GVC continues its superb work in minority communities, that it will be longer before we see an E Pluribus Unum Workers’ Alliance Against Air Pollution That Is Killing Our Children and Grandparents.
Finally, noting the food served at this GVC conference from an historical perspective, frequent attendees wondered whether the Center was losing funds or just losing interest in holding conferences.
The conference’s top sponsors included: The California Endowment, David & Lucile Packard Foundation, Gerry N. Kamilos, LLC, AT&T, SJVAPCD, Caltrans, Castle & Cooke, Citibank, Comcast, P G & E, Sierra Health Foundation, Pacific Union Homes, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, KVIE, and UC Merced.
Event sponsors included a number of development consultants, Chevron, Western States Petroleum Association, Caltrans, Diesel Technology Forum, Kaiser Permanente, USDA Rural Development, HUD, several utilities, CSU Chico, some green energy companies, and others.
Perhaps sponsors such as these don’t want the Valley public to gather together and break good bread anymore. So many of them, particularly developers and their consultants (with lenders, realtors and landowners standing behind them) maintain a uniformly hostile attitude to public participation in the environmental, health and safety reviews of their projects that grossly affect the quality of life of the Valley public. But, as we learned again at the conference, experts hired by special interests always know what is best for unspecial us. Some of the Center’s top sponsors are grand philanthropists of the planning process – sincerely contributing to the campaigns of elected officials that make local land-use decisions approving the philanthropists’ own projects. This charity even extends to legal indemnification funds that protect the municipalities and counties in case members of the public sue the officials for land-use decisions that might have been influenced more by developer philanthropy than by thoughts of the Public Trust or the common good.
Nevertheless, some resourceful members of the Valley public repaired to a nearby eatery for a lively “breakout session” of their own over good food and wine on the evening of the first day of the conference.