Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City. Mayors, activists, councilmembers, and the odd blogger came out to share successes and failures in their communities in the hopes that others could learn from their examples. And after it all, one thing is clear: Marin has it pretty good.
Smart growth came about in the early 90s as the response to auto-oriented sprawl. Though it can mean many things, the basic purpose is improving access for walking and bicycling. Within a 15 minute drive is a certain number of residences and businesses. Within a 15 minute walk there is less. In a place with high access for walkers, however, there is too much density for everyone to move around in cars, leading to congestion if that demand isn’t well-managed. Similarly, in a place with high access for cars, there is too little density for people to be able to walk with any efficiency.
While there have always been low-density places for the people who want peace and quiet away from the town center, the last 60 years has seen a great proliferation of such places. In cities like Tulsa or Houston, the city centers themselves were transformed to improve automobile access at the expense of walking access. What activists term sprawl was the outward growth of this style.
In Marin, we rebelled in the 1960s after we saw what freeways were doing to the rest of the Bay Area. Though our beloved trains and ferries were long gone, destroyed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway 101, we refused to allow West Marin to be built over. We developed our landmark Corridors plan, ensuring sprawl would not rule our day.
A centerpiece of smart growth is a commercially strong and walkable town, and almost every city and community in Marin has one. These are spaces where you can walk from a nearby neighborhood or park your car once and stroll the strip. They are places with a high density of destinations. They define their community. After all, what would Mill Valley be without Miller Avenue? Or San Rafael without Fourth Street? Other cities aren’t so lucky.
But a place where you can walk isn’t much good if you can’t walk anywhere else, or if it’s unsafe to bike around town. On this, too, Marin has a leg up on its peers.
Surprising though it is, the fact that we have sidewalks on nearly all but the most rural streets and arterial roads is a rarity, and it shows in the pedestrian fatality rates. Across the US, there are 1.38 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people. In California, it’s 1.6 per 100,000, but in Marin it’s less than half that. In 2008, Marin only had 0.6 pedestrians die per 100,000 people. Though every death is a tragedy, Marin is doing far better than the country at large.
Our focus on smart growth – not to mention the transit-oriented bones left by that rail system – has paid off in how we commute. Our county has the second lowest rate of car commuters in the state, surpassed only by San Francisco. If we add carpools, we are tied with San Mateo County for third. One in three Marin commuters travel by a means other than a single-occupant vehicle. One in ten take transit, third best in the state.
That’s not to say Marin doesn’t have its shortcomings. Our bicycle infrastructure is good but not complete. Our zoning codes needlessly inhibit small units and drive up housing costs. And between those walkable town centers are drivable strips, meant more to be sped through than lingered in.
But Marin has a lot to teach the rest of the country. I was raised on the Marin sense of pride, the understanding that if only the United States would be more like Marin we’d have a more sustainable, prosperous world. Marinites should smile that the movement towards smart growth around the world is in essence an attempt to take the path Marin took 40 years ago. We should smile, that is, and roll up our sleeves.