Growth politics study

We don't have our act together with respect to our current population much less the perpetual, rapid population growth pursued by current policies.

by Carolyn Chase

ANDAG has been telling us for years we need to plan for a million more people by 2020. But when they took their rapid-growth-accommodating approach to the public, the most frequent comment was, “Can't we slow growth somehow?” So they undertook what turned out to be a very limited study of growth-slowing measures.

    As a member of the Citizens Review Panel providing feedback on the study, I was struck most by the unsupported assertions and incomplete analysis.

    A flock of articulate comments were submitted to SANDAG and, in the main, ignored. But the arguments will not go away.

    Attorney Kevin Johnson pointed out,

    “The popularity of growth management initiatives at the local level is the result of [the voters] fundamental, basic instinct and growing frustrations with the inability of government, be it local, regional or state to deal with the ongoing deterioration of our quality of life.”


    “To convince the citizens, as well as their elected political leaders, that their communities need to densify or somehow give up control over land use decisions to a regional body, you must have a growth management plan that people will 'buy into.'''

    Nico Calavita, SDSU professor in Urban Planning, noted,

    “The demand for growth limitations is fueled by the public perception that growth is lowering their quality of life. If growth outpaces the ability to provide the necessary public facilities and services, then people will start pressing for growth limitations. Quality of life then is directly related to our ability to fund the necessary infrastructure. ... the questions we need to ask are: How much is growth going to cost? ... Where is the money going to come from? Is it likely that the region will generate the necessary funding to maintain our quality of life?”

    Calavita also queried, “How much can taxes and fees be raised on economic activity without losing economic competitiveness? How much could be generated by jurisdictions if fees and taxes were raised at least to the average in the state? What is puzzling about [certain] 'business friendly' politics is that, in the long run, they lead to a loss of competitiveness. It is becoming increasingly clear that the best economic incentive that regions can provide is a high level of quality of life.”

    The National Wildlife Federation cited “two fatal flaws” in the study. First, “the study concentrated on identifying the negative economic impacts of stopping or slowing growth. For this study to have unbiased merit (for which SANDAG should be striving), it must also discuss the positive impacts.”

    Second, “Contrary to the conclusions drawn in the SANDAG report, local governments do have the ability to affect population growth rates. Worldwide, programs aimed at providing voluntary family planning assistance, improved educational opportunities for women and girls, and financial incentives for women to start small business have helped reduce fertility rates. SANDAG should investigate how investing in such programs can not only impact the population growth rate, but also bring about significant health and economic benefits to the region.”

    SANDAG's key arguments against such policies are:

“Certain national policies tend to promote fertility.”


“Reductions in unwanted births will be increasingly difficult to achieve.”

    Neither of these arguments is deployed to diminish other policies.

    For instance, national (as well as state) programs promote a wide variety of policies for and against local concerns such as fiscalization of land use. Instead of noting that officials could lobby to change those policies as they recommend with fiscal reform they leap to the conclusion that nothing can be done. The empirical results of family planning programs show otherwise.

    As for being difficult to achieve, I can think of nothing that SANDAG is attempting to do that is not “difficult to achieve.” Isn't “smart growth” going to be difficult to achieve? Isn't raising taxes by multi-billions to fund infrastructure deficits going to be difficult to achieve? Some argue that “de-fiscalization” of land use decisions is actually impossible to achieve yet SANDAG is pursuing it, and rightfully so difficult or not.

    “Difficult to achieve” is not a neutral standard and says nothing about whether a policy is important.

    The study also leaps to the conclusion that reducing growth would have speculative negative impacts such as unquantified but, in their opinion, definitely increased impacts upon the poor.

    But with fewer people to provide for, is not the burden less? At least one credible study of “slower growing” regions reports that housing is more affordable, the traffic is less and their economies can indeed be stable and the quality of life high.

    It is fundamental that, if there were less people, there would be less demand for housing, water, energy and everything else. That could indeed become a benefit to the poor. But this aspect is never analyzed. Instead, they leap to the traditional conclusion that only by population growth can we help the poor. But poverty and homelessness continue to rise under the current growth paradigm.

    During the citizen review process with staff, they argued that there was no policy mix where we could reasonably expect that our region could reduce its growth, even to match the national average, with an acceptable level of prosperity.

    But the following week the new census results were released and showed that this reduced rate of growth indeed was already happening.

    This is of great significance to SANDAG and the region not as much for the causes of this reduced rate of growth but because the premises of this model provide the basis for billions of dollars of decisions about the capacities of all major transportation and traffic-related project decisions.

    The SANDAG Board should immediately request a review and correction to all modeling assumptions and forecasts.

    But the area where the study is the most complete failure is with respect to the ecology and environment.

    There are real biological limits, but this study does everything to ignore them. There is little acknowledgment that, indeed, the economy is a subset of the ecology and not the other way around.

    A population is said to exceed its carrying capacity when it “overshoots” the capacity of its ecosystem to provide food, water and energy. The “carrying capacity” of the earth for all species, plants and animals is defined by the biosphere: the atmosphere, land, sea and climate systems that allow for water cycles and biodiversity to create and sustain life on earth. At the global level, there is no scientific question that humankind is degrading these natural support systems: from climate change inputs to crashing fisheries.

    What does this mean for a region like San Diego/Tijuana where our approach to growth has already led to a long list of endangered species, polluted waters and rising homelessness?

    It means we don't have our act together with respect to our current population much less the perpetual, rapid population growth pursued by the latest crop of past-looking political practitioners. At some point in time, the local must be reconciled with the global and the political with nature.

    Stuart Hurlbert, SDSU Professor of Biology, commented, “the report takes a very dismissive attitude toward the valuable concept of carrying capacity, saying: why bother to consider it since we won't be able to enforce it? That is like a medical doctor not bothering to advise an unhealthy patient on diet, exercise, and medication because he cannot force the patient to follow the advice. The estimation of carrying capacity would be a complex task and involve consideration of values as much as consideration of technical matters. How much wild land to we want? How much does it matter if our grandchildren don't have as many opportunities or as high an environmental quality as we enjoy? The process of attempting to define carrying capacity would be as valuable as the end product.”

    SANDAG is soliciting comments on the study until June 27th;

    Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and chair of the Mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at