Since California was first named in a 16th century novel that described it as “an island, very close to the Garden of Eden, full of gold,”[i] generations have come to seek fame and fortune along the coast, in its valleys or on its mountains. Equally, embedded in its history is a conviction of character and the dedication to realizing the California dream despite the epic manmade and natural challenges we face, and the unspoken reality that this dream is not available equally to all.
Our generation must come to grips with the fact that the California dream is threatened by a historic affordability crisis. Aging and inadequate infrastructure cannot support the current population, and economic development is insufficient to accommodate projected growth or address our growing environmental challenges. All these issues are occurring during a long overdue social revolution and a historic global pandemic. Yet, there is reason for hope.
California’s economy is the envy of many, in part because we have one of the most diverse and culturally rich populations in the world. Despite the lack of national leadership on climate and infrastructure, and inner-California in-fighting on housing issues, much of our state and municipal leadership is at the center of international and national environmental and equity discussions. In our short-term response to the coronavirus pandemic, Californians have worked across the political, economic and social spectrum to keep California relatively safe. We need to channel this collaborative spirit to assess the next stages of recovery and challenge ourselves to look forward to a better normal, where the California dream is available to everyone for generations to come.
The Next Generation of Transportation
California’s identity must change from the iconic image as the birthplace of crowded highways to a reimagined icon of mobility — one aligned with our state’s 2017 Executive Order to be carbon neutral by 2045[ii] and one of cities and communities of pedestrians and cyclists making local trips, while efficient, safe and carbon-free mass transit connects us across regions and the state. We must replace the iconic and prevalent gas stations of the 20th century with a statewide charging and electric transportation network that is not only accessible, but also a right of all Californians. The 2017 Executive Order set a goal that by 2030, we must have 5 million[iii] zero emissions vehicles, but of the approximately 15 million registered vehicles in California today, only 100,000 are zero emissions vehicles.[iv]
For generations, California living has been typified by bungalows and single-family houses in suburban neighborhoods defining the symbolic sunny California lifestyle replete with citrus trees in everyone’s backyards. This vision was not open to all and its sprawling reality is not sustainable. We need a new vision of communities with townhouses and apartments surrounding neighborhood parks, which are affordable to our workforce and are supported by transit — creating places where people can live, work and play within a 20-minute walk or transit ride. This would dramatically enhance the efficiency of our land-use. California has a housing shortfall of 3.5 million units and 41.6% of its residents are rent-burdened.[v]
Creating Quality Jobs
For several generations, we have been proud to see the “Designed in California” labels while ignoring the true environmental and social cost of offshoring manufacturing. Today’s advanced manufacturing can bring back jobs without polluting our air and water tables if we invest in and advocate for an advanced manufacturing renaissance and sustainable agricultural industry here in California. We must invest in all Californians through education and job training and provide a pathway to quality jobs to eliminate working poverty. This will require significant investment in not only workforce training, but also modern energy, water and transport infrastructure[vi] to underpin the growth in California.
Mitigating Climate Change
California’s valleys, mountains and shorelines are threatened by climate change in the form of flooding and wildfires. Adaptation has been studied and strategies developed, but many are waiting to be implemented due to a lack of funding, fragmented governance and permitting challenges[vii]. It was estimated that in 2019, there was $25 billion of damage caused by fire alone[viii]. Real estate worth $100 billion, countless habitats and 25 million residents are still vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding[ix].
We need the social, economic and political resolve to invest in implementing these strategies and as quickly as possible. We need to pivot from investing in recovery to investing in adaptation and resilience that allows Californians to thrive together. Only then can we be closer to turning the myth of a resilient California dream into a reality that is available to all the world’s most ambitious, adventurous and innovative.