Northern News

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A publication of the American Planning Association, California Chapter, Northern Section

Making great communities happen

Infrastructure for Infill

Introducing a paper by the California Planning Roundtable, May 2022

For good reason, California is directing most future growth closer to jobs where people can take shorter commutes by multiple means, including transit, to reduce vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gases generated to slow climate change and its impacts. This means that California’s metropolitan areas will mostly grow up with infill and redevelopment of underdeveloped properties rather than grow out by sprawling onto greenfield lands. If planned correctly, more affordable housing opportunities and lower cost travel options will be available to more California households of different incomes, sizes, and ages.

Good planning, however, calls for complete communities with quality sustainable infrastructure — water and waste, energy, digital, storm management, sidewalks, and streetscapes — and public facilities (schools, libraries, parks and open space, health services, public safety, and shelter) to serve this growth and to remedy past deficiencies to prepare for growth. The former may be called “basic infrastructure” and the latter “social infrastructure.” As we grow housing opportunities with infill development, we need to plan and fund Infrastructure for Infill.

The challenge lies not in recognizing the need, but in organizing to address it. Without adequate infrastructure, plans will not be fulfilled and turned into actual development, neither because of system failures, unacceptable impacts, and increasing costs, nor because of public opposition. Infrastructure for infill development, more so than for greenfield development, involves coordinating many existing and new interests, including property owners, renters, businesses, workers, and governments.

Infrastructure itself comes in different sizes, conditions, and types. Who benefits and who pays for it is not always clear or fairly apportioned. Those who feel that they have already paid — or are still paying — are not as willing to tax themselves to pay more unless they feel their services are also improved. Unlike new planned communities with private facilities, there are no homeowners’ associations to fund and manage maintenance. The public realm has much broader responsibilities.

Older and vulnerable communities facing greater costs to upgrade often include populations and households with fewer financial means and the capacity to fund those costs. The greater good may require cross-subsidies to address these inherent inequities.

Some mechanisms exist but are not always adequate. Either they are too narrowly applied, do not generate the scale of funding needed, or have approval requirements designed for limited property ownership and voters (as in community facility districts) or require a supermajority of voters jurisdiction-wide. That can be a challenge when the need is for a subset of the jurisdiction and some of the voters being asked to approve new taxes and fees already have adequate infrastructure and facilities. In addition, legacy facility standards are often inappropriate for infill contexts where land is expensive, uses are mixed, and ownership is disaggregated and varied. Common suburban standards, where land costs much less, may not work in urban contexts.

California’s communities, residents, and businesses need the State to provide local governments and their communities with more tools to fund infrastructure for infill if it expects them to support California’s growth strategy. State and federal attention understandably is placed on big regional infrastructure, such as regional transportation, energy, broadband, and water/sewer systems. However, as the State takes a more direct role in regulating housing, land use, and mobility to further sustainability, resilience, and equity policies, it also needs to take a more direct role in providing localities with the tools they need to provide the smaller — but in aggregate, just as important — infrastructure needed to maintain and create the balanced communities that Californian’s want and deserve.

The California Planning Roundtable has prepared a paper making this case: Infrastructure for Infill (7 pp, 832 kb). Contributors to the paper are William Anderson, FAICP; Marc Roberts, Woodie Tescher; Tom Jacobson, Ann Cheng, and Al Zelinka.

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