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by Sarah Stevens

Sprawling cities dominate the Western United States but what happens when there is no land left? According to Bill Fulton, one of the nation’s top planners, San Diego and most American cities are facing this very question for the first time. Cities must focus on redevelopment and revitalization plans which make them more sustainable, resilient, accessible, and successful.

Comparing the major cities of the East and West Coasts, among many differences, one stands out – space. Eastern cities are compact and built vertically, whereas the cities of the West, take Los Angeles and San Diego, are the definition of sprawling spread out cities. However land is not an infinite resource so when all the available land is accounted for, cities must reevaluate their city and community plans.

Mr. Fulton was recently appointed as San Diego’s new Planning Director, with the task of not only building a planning department but helping the city transition towards “non-sprawl” growth. As the eighth largest city in the US and second largest in California, redeveloping San Diego’s growth plans is not a simple task, and one which he believes is as much as psychological change for the city as it is a physical one. Mr. Fulton is the previous Mayor of Ventura, California and Vice President of Smart Growth America, a national organization dedicated to building accessible, healthy, and economically successful communities.

As cities create new resilient and sustainable plans, it’s essential to not only focus on the infrastructure and development projects but also invest in restoring and creating public parks and open spaces. As land becomes more and more scarce, the ecological functions and benefits of open spaces become more valuable. If we look at densely packed urban cities such as New York, public parks and open spaces which have restored natural ecosystems and reintroduced public access are highly valued and protected assets. The High Line, Central Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park are just a few examples of the many public spaces that have focused on reinvesting and restoring existing resources and produced significant ecological, economic, and social benefits. Sprawling cities can take a note from these projects, as future planning will have come reinvesting in existing neighborhoods[1].

In San Diego, there is a visible difference between neighborhoods planned before and after the growth management plans of the 70s and 80s. The “pre-growth management” neighborhoods lack the public spaces and landscaping of the newer areas, representing what Mr. Fulton refers to as one of the biggest challenges for the city. As a result, planners must identify what aspects are the most important and transformative in these areas to successfully create “smart” communities which are improve the quality of life and integrate urban and natural environments.

While sprawling cities no longer have the land to develop horizontally many high density development areas are also faced with limited land for redevelopment and green spaces. If we look at aerial images of most urban areas, the vast majority of land is developed leaving a very small percentage of open land. Some of this undeveloped land remains because it presents a number of challenges that are not easily addressed. For example, previous industrial sites (brownfields) may provide acres of land for potential redevelopment, but first require significant remediation and ecological restoration. However, before redevelopment can begin, innovative restoration strategies are essential to remove contaminants and restore vital ecological functions.

We may have a long way to go as we transition away from the sprawling city and while we address infrastructure, housing, and transit planning we must provide must also focus on ecological functionality to plan and design truly sustainable cities with ecological, economic, and social benefits.



[1] Keatts, Andrew. Q&A: Why Bill Fulton Came to San DiegoVoice of San Diego. N.p., 11 June 2013

Showley, Rodger. Bill Fulton: City Makeover-in-chiefU-T San Diego. U-T San Diego, 2 Sept. 2013.

Bill Fulton Tasked by Mayor with Reconstituting San Diego City’s Planning DepartmentThe Planning Report. The Planning Report, 19 Sept. 2013.