California’s Solano and Contra Costa counties converge at the Carquinez Strait, which connects the Sacramento Bay to the Suisun Bay and Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. Here, along the strait and just beyond it, 10 cities — of which the youngest is no less than 102 years old — endure the combined punishment of municipal bankruptcy, high foreclosure rates and the suburbanization of poverty.
These “Cities of Carquinez” were the subject of an investigation in this month’s issue of The Urbanist, a magazine put out by the San Francisco-based urban planing and policy think tank, SPUR. In a separate articles, Alex Schafran delves into the region’s history while Chris Schildt and Jake Wegman assess its current economic woes.
Schafran begins by stressing the region’s vital role in the Bay Area, from its history as an industrial base to the incredible migration of racially and ethnically diverse people into the area from the 1980s to today. He emphasizes the ambitious and sometimes contradictory regional plans, both considered and implemented, that reflect changing perceptions of the region.
“Regional planning efforts from the 1950s through the end of the 1970s saw this part of the Bay Area as a place of the future, one that offered an opportunity to proactively correct the ills of suburban sprawl and build transit-oriented development at the heart of complete communities,” writes Schafran.
But what began as an effort to “connect the cities to the region’s core and to each other” via an extension of a BART rail line through the cities’ historic centers, took on the connotation of “growth-inducing” infrastructure and was abandoned for the sake of combating sprawl.
“That point of view,” Schafran points out, “ignores one important fact: These communities are not suburban sprawl. They were established in an era before suburbs existed, and they retain traces of the kind of urban form that has primed many older American cities for dense, transit-oriented development.”
So what kind of development, exactly, will be crucial in unlocking these cities’ potential as integrated, urban centers? In an interview, Schafran cited jobs, connectivity and higher education.
“These communities are not suburban sprawl.” Credit: Alex Schafran/The Urbanist
Schafran argued that the region is among the largest metropolitan areas in the nation without proximate access to higher ed facilities. Transportation costs are some of the highest in the Bay Area — 80 percent of the population commutes — and foreclosure rates have been, as of 2008, a thousand times that of the San Francisco, Marin and Silicon Valley, according to Schildt and Wegman.
To deal with these problems, Schafran identified a “handful of key opportunity sites,” including potential locations for ferry and rail connections as well as the Concord Naval Weapons Station, which is in the process of adding onto its facility a California State University campus.
But many of these plans have long been on the drawing table. “There are already plans for a ferry station; there are already plans to add a Cal State campus onto the Concord Naval Station,” said Schafran. “Its just a matter of getting them implemented.”
According to Schafran, a mix of good leadership, recognition from the larger Bay Area as an important region, and a sense of shared destiny will create the political climate necessary for broad infrastructural changes. “You need to be building the political coalition around the plan as you are building the plan,” he said.