San Diego Forward: A Move Toward a Greener, More Coordinated Region

PrintIn the effort to highlight significant sustainability plans that have impacted municipalities and regions around the country, Metropolitan Institute’s Sustainability Planning Lab is also examining the dynamics in developing and adopting regional and local sustainability plans.  While the final sustainability plans often receive all of the media attention with ceremonial press conferences, the planning process – the communities’ sustainability planning journeys – can in fact tell us more about the commitments to the the visions and principles set forth in the plans themselves.

This month we feature a regional sustainability plan under development, San Diego Forward: The Regional Plan, with prospective adoption scheduled for the summer of 2015. The Sustainability Planning Lab spoke with Coleen Clementson, Principal Planner with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and Michael Stepner, former Planning Director and City Architect for the City of San Diego, and current professor of Architecture and Urban Design at The New School of Architecture + Design. Coleen is currently overseeing the development of the regional plan, and Michael has been engaged in public policy and comprehensive planning in the City of San Diego and the region, in multiple capacities, for more than 35 years. They both shared their perspectives on the ebbs and flows of the regional planning process in light of California’s groundbreaking climate change legislation, AB 32 and SB 375.

San Diego Forward updates and combines the San Diego region’s two big picture planning documents – the Regional Comprehensive Plan (RCP) and the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (2050 RTP/SCS) – into one. The plan sets forth a unified vision for the region’s future and an approach to make the vision a reality. The San Diego region found itself in a unique spot as the testing ground for AB 32 and SB 375, California’s pioneering laws that link sustainability planning with regional GHG reduction goals. AB 32 charged the California Air Resources Board to develop discrete early actions to reduce greenhouse gases while also preparing a scoping plan to identify how best to reach the 2020 limit through all sectors. SB 375 requires metropolitan planning organizations, such as SANDAG, to develop a sustainable community strategy (SCS) as part of its regional transportation plan.  That SCS must demonstrate how coordinated land use and transportation planning can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for cars and light trucks.

Coleen Clementson explained that SANDAG, as a metropolitan planning organization, is required to prepare a regional transportation plan every four years in accordance with federal mandates.   San Diego Forward will serve as the regional transportation plan and will also satisfy the SB 375 requirement that regional transportation plans include an SCS. A key element in the planning process is community engagement. Mike explained that “[San Diego] brought a lot of people in to help them rethink the process, and that is where San Diego Forward came from.” SB 375 includes a long list of greenhouse gas mitigation measures, which the city is required to uphold. Those new and complicated issues often illicit responses such as “How do you begin to do that?” “How do you deal with the changing climate situation?” and the SANDAG is working hard to address all of this. “I think it is a challenge and a learning experience,” said Mike. Meanwhile, the San Diego Foundation also engaged in a regional visioning process before the formal San Diego Forward effort began. The foundation subsequently formed a Center for Civic Engagement, and they also have staff working independently on various policy reports related to these issues.

The importance placed on collaboration and community engagement emanates through in the products and policy guidelines coming out of this effort. The major stakeholders involved in the process include SANDAG’s Board of Directors (comprised of elected officials from the 19 local jurisdictions in the region) and Policy Advisory Committees (PACs) which include a regional planning committee and a transportation committee (also comprised of local elected officials). Several working groups comprised of local jurisdiction staffs, advocates, and community members) provide input to the policy committees and Board of Directors throughout the process to develop the regional plan.  This includes the development of a vision, goals, policy objectives, performance measures to evaluate alternative transportation networks, as well as directing guiding the supportive policies in the areas of economic development, public facilities, energy, environmental protection and mitigation, and housing. SANDAG also did a series of workshops throughout the region to engage interested community members in the planning effort. Coleen addressed some of the innovative sustainability elements in San Diego Forward explaining that SANDAG “not only make[s] investments in the regional transportation network, we also have a significant amount of funding going toward environmental mitigation and preservation…and we also provide incentives to local jurisdictions for smart growth development and alternative transportation investments in bike and pedestrian projects…The other piece we have to go along with that is a strong energy component through which we perform energy audits and assist local  jurisdictions to develop ways to reduce energy consumption in this region…”

There are still many miles to go in the planning process, and Mr. Stepner emphasized the importance of implementation. He explained that while the plan will be formally adopted next summer, there needs to be an effort to convince the citizens of San Diego of its worth before there can be any assumptions about effective implementation. He also stressed the fact that equity and community engagement are tenets that have underscored this process, and that SANDAG is working hard to embrace a more sustainable future for everyone. Coleen also addressed the emphasis on social equity, adding that SANDAG “engaged a number of community based organizations that represent parts of the San Diego region that are lower income and minority communities predominantly.” Michael reinforced the importance of community education, adding that “it’s making sure that people are aware that you can solve problems, create better neighborhoods and that everything doesn’t rely on having wider roads and more parking spaces.” While there are always difficult decisions and compromises that must be made in these planning efforts, Clementson affirmed that San Diego Forward has a little bit of something for everybody.

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