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Livable Communities in California


• Population over 65 will double by 2030 in California.

• Livable communities enhance mobility for all.

• Big cities “can't just sprawl forever.”

Every morning Paul Zykofsky walks to work.

From his condo in the Midtown neighborhood of Sacramento, he strolls eight blocks under a leafy canopy of trees to his downtown job, passing homes, apartment buildings, restaurants, shops and offices.

“I chose to move here because I wanted a place to age in place and where I could walk to work,” the 55-year-old Zykofsky said. “I’m very happy to be here.”

Midtown was built in the late 19th century—before the automobile became king. With its lively mix of retail and housing, a population diverse in age and income, pedestrian-friendly streets, parks and easy access to light rail and bus lines, the once rundown Midtown is now one of Sacramento’s trendiest neighborhoods.

It also fits the AARP model of a livable community. In a state with 36 million people, livability becomes critical—especially as people age. AARP projects California’s 65-plus population will double by 2030.

“The livable community concept is important because it enhances our mobility, and that increases the quality of our lives,” said Lavada DeSalles, an AARP California volunteer in Sacramento and a former member of the AARP board of directors. “If you can’t get around, you can’t visit friends, make doctor appointments, go shopping, have all the social interactions that ensure longevity.”

Across California, governments appear to be recognizing that such ideas make sense. Continued population growth in a context of limited land, water and energy resources means denser communities not dependent on cars. Planners call it  “smart growth.”

In Sacramento, a 2004 city resolution encouraged greater use of streets by pedestrians and bicyclists. Planners reduced car lanes on some streets from three to two lanes to create bike lanes, and installed traffic-calming devices such as speed bumps.

That year Sacramento and San Diego counties approved tax ordinances to fund pedestrian-friendly transportation projects. And a statewide law passed last year requires cities and counties to design roads that can accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists.

In San Diego, the 230-acre Quarry Falls project will rise on the site of a sand and gravel quarry three miles from downtown. Its plan includes single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, parks, a civic center, retail, a school and more than 40 acres of open space, all connected by walking, hiking and biking trails. A shuttle will take residents to nearby light rail.

“The key is to create a place where you can live your life close to jobs and events in San Diego, with a shuttle through the site to points that are tied to transit,” said Marco Sessa of Sudberry Properties, developer of the project.

Smart growth concepts have been applied since 1999 at Otay Ranch, a large development in Chula Vista where five of 16 planned villages connected by pedestrian paths and bridges have been completed. A senior apartment complex in the Heritage Towne Village received a Gold Award from the National Association of Home Builders in 2006 for its proximity to public transportation, shops and services.

“We have built a community with a sense of place, not just a series of homes,” said Kim Kil­kenny of the Otay Ranch Company, which developed the project.

From the coast to the central valley, planners view livable communities as welcome alternatives to traffic-congested cities and isolated auto-dependent suburbs.

“We need to draw a boundary, a terminus, beyond which there will be no more development,” said Keith Bergthold, a Fresno planning director. “We can’t just sprawl forever.”

Joan Aragone is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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