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Per Capita Davis: Landing on local issues

By From page A6 | October 17, 2013

Friends and readers kindly suggest topics I might write about. Most recently, the suggestion was to address local issues such as the plastic bag controversy and various pending land-use issues.

Honestly, I don’t get too excited over the plastic bag issue, but local land use is another matter. I do think that land-use decisions will play a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Way back when I started writing this column in January of 2007 I named it “Per Capita Davis” because the original emphasis was on what each of us can do as individuals to respond to climate change. Even then, though, it was clear to me that actions by individuals include acting together as a community to promote policies over which the people we hire to represent us on the City Council and Board of Supervisors have jurisdiction.

One person changing a light bulb makes a very small difference, but if an entire city of homes and businesses makes the same decision, we’re beginning to talk about real money, so to speak.

So maybe I should reconsider my relative lack of enthusiasm for the plastic bag issue. But, really, can’t someone invent a bag that has all the usefulness of our current plastic bags but that is compostable? And I mean really compostable. I’ve placed some bags alleged to break down, along with some “non-plastic” spoons and forks advertised as biodegradable, into my compost pile and they’re still there a couple of years later with no apparent change.

Anyway, back to land use. A long time ago I was a member of the Davis Planning Commission, and I know how complicated land-use issues can be. There are general principles that are clear, and hewing to these over the years has made this community famous for energy efficiency and bike lanes.

In terms of project details, there’s often room for disagreement, with both sides genuflecting to the same general principles. Whenever I don’t have time to read all the staff reports or attend the numerous public hearings on a land-use proposal I confess to taking the lazy person’s way out; I listen to those individuals and organizations that, over time and through many issues, I have grown to trust. Not blind trust, mind you, but a solid starting point.

I confess to the same thing with elections. If I don’t know a candidate personally, the opinions of those I trust make a big contribution to my eventual voting choices.

So, here are a couple of opinions about a local land-use issue: The Cannery project. There are lots of things I like about it, including the potential for a local farm, but I offer the following thoughts.

One, in my last column I mentioned Martin Luther King’s speech about the “fierce urgency of now.” He was speaking about the civil rights movement and the need to take bold action. In another recent column I complained that cost often seems to attain first place in the decision-making process, with something so sensible as sustainability tagging along after.

So, my suggestion for planners and policy makers is to be bold in considering our city’s role in creating a sustainable world when making decisions on this and other projects.

Two, I know and trust the organization and people in Davis Bicycles! If they say the proposed bicycle circulation pattern is not good, or not good enough, then it should be changed. Above- or below-grade crossings are the safest and most convenient for cyclists and this project should recognize the longer term and fit into, rather than merely attach to, our overall infrastructure.

Three, I have a similar high regard for the individuals in the Valley Climate Action Center. Their board of directors includes some of our state’s foremost energy experts and we should listen closely and take advantage of their advice. Ideally, all new construction should be “net zero” (or, at least “net zero electric”) and produce as much energy (or electricity) as it consumes. To do otherwise is to exacerbate our current situation.

It’s a whole lot easier to make buildings and neighborhoods energy-efficient when they are built than it is to try and retrofit homes or overlay bike lanes on a street system later.

The folks proposing the development have gone a long way to meet expectations for building in Davis, including some pretty good stuff in terms of energy efficiency and renewables. And the Planning Commission has made sensible recommendations for improvement, including asking for an independent opinion regarding the cost to go further — to net zero or at least net zero electric.

This is all very easy for me to say; I have no money invested. But I noticed the other day an article about a project in London that is going beyond what is on the table here. The developers are proposing a project of 3,000 homes, businesses and community facilities that is not just “net zero” but is actually “climate positive” in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

The devil is in the details, and the proof is in the pudding but the goals should be bold and respond to the “fierce urgency of now. “

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments and suggestions to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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