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Let's Stop with the Name-Calling and Unite to Stop Urban Sprawl

We need more housing. But we can only build a truly modern city when we stop relying on new land and force ourselves to innovate. A potential ballot measure would help hold developers accountable.

The proposed site of the Lilac Hills Ranch development. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Be careful when you hear the term ‘NIMBY’ being thrown around in conversation about land use in San Diego. The term, meaning “not in my backyard,” was coined in response to nuclear waste facilities being established near residential communities, and that’s exactly how many San Diegans feel about developers bulldozing the last of our natural habitats in the backcountry today.

But now the term is used as a pejorative. If you suggest to San Diego developers that they shouldn’t continue erecting sprawling neighborhoods far to the east, you will be labeled a NIMBY.

Voice of San Diego CommentaryName-calling aside, we can only build a truly modern, 21st century city when we stop relying on new land and force ourselves to innovate. We can and should find ways to give people more space with less land, more light with less energy, and more community with fewer roads. That is the only way forward for this city, and for a world grappling with population growth.

By contrast, a well-organized group of local developers is directing their considerable resources against a single political matter: The Safeguard Our San Diego Countryside initiative, which is collecting signatures for the November ballot right now. The initiative would require developers to get voter approval if they want to deviate from the county’s general plan.

Developers are highly incentivized to override the general plan, which protects open spaces in the backcountry, favors infill construction, and aims to protect our overburdened transportation and energy infrastructure. The reason is simple: sprawling development is easier to do than infill and it prints money.

This is how it works: find a large plot of land, build the same houses, use the same sales materials, and turn a quick buck. Following this practice does not require architects, construction companies or engineers to design better products or reimagine how our city might look and operate in the 21st century.

We have had this debate before. In the 1980s, developers outspent San Diego conservationists 10-1 to defeat a slow growth ballot initiative. But a scrappy, bi-partisan opposition led by the likes of Pete Wilson and Roger Hedgecock carried the day with overwhelming numbers. Despite telling our developers to play by the rules, our economy has boomed and businesses have stayed.

The real issue at stake in this election is not whether San Diego is good for business, but whether the developers seeking to create backdoor access to our county’s laws and regulations are good for San Diego. We have to look in the mirror. Living the American Dream in San Diego usually means buying a single family home that is identical to your neighbor’s because the only inventory available are copy and paste units stamped out of plastic by developers.

To be sure, we need housing. But we have been building the same bleak urban sprawl for more than half a century using abundant land as our crutch. At some point we must stop and ask when we will learn to plan for urban density. When will we challenge ourselves and our business community to innovate?

A quick survey of the world’s most creative cities throws ours into stark contrast. Other cities are designing solutions to increase density without sacrificing open spaces or adding to traffic congestion. Medellín, Colombia, is fighting sprawl by ringing its city with a 46 mile city garden. Barcelona is coping with density by creating super blocks. Oslo is designing a 21st century city for people, not cars, by going car free in its city center by 2019.

We have asked for decades that developers innovate and learn how to design and build for a new era in our city — but every year there is a new battle over a multi-thousand acre development in the backcountry being billed as the only way to cure the housing crisis.

Instead of using their resources on modernizing and working with our elected officials to make our city an example of what can be done in this new century, our developers spend millions lobbying and playing political games — like de-listing threatened species — to get access to still more land.

Having this opinion makes me a NIMBY. But it shouldn’t, because I would love to see construction in my backyard, in Point Loma, not 40 miles east of here. I would like to see someone borrow an idea from Singapore, New York, or Copenhagen.

Let’s open our doors to new ideas. Let’s charge our elected officials to invite the best and the brightest to come to our city and bring futuristic concepts and bold visions. We have world-class architects who were born and raised right here in San Diego, who should be given the opportunity to put their fingerprints on our city’s future, not forced to till under our backcountry.

This is the century when our energy comes from the sun and our drinking water comes from the ocean. This must also be the century when we let go of the outdated and unimaginative idea that sprawl is the only way to solve our housing crisis.

Russell A. York, a resident of Point Loma, is a native San Diegan working with tech startups around the world. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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