How “smart” is it if you can’t walk to the store…any store?
By Jefferson Beavers
When we decided to take a look at smart growth in the Central Valley, we wanted to see if the goal of compact, walkable living was a realistic option for the largely suburban, car-loving communities of central California.
So, Central Valley bureau chief Sasha Khokha decided to get out of her car, put on her walking shoes, and burn some shoe leather…almost literally.
As the story’s field producer, I first researched dozens of developments in Fresno and Madera counties. I looked for good examples of high-density housing and sustainable neighborhoods as defined by the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, the area’s land use and transportation planning process.
Finding examples of smart growth communities here proved to be harder than we thought. A 2010 study [PDF] out of UC Merced detailed the significant challenges of implementing smart growth practices in the Central Valley. People here love their cars. They love their detached, single-family suburban homes. They are immersed in a commuter culture, and old habits are hard to break.
I found the biggest and most successful smart growth project near Fresno to be Harlan Ranch, with its “high-density” housing and eco-friendly features. The development features a school, lots of shared playgrounds and green spaces, miles of walking paths, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a communal clubhouse with activities for residents. Within its walls, Harlan Ranch is an award-winning oasis of good living and sustainability.
But here’s the catch: Residents of Harlan Ranch must drive to get there. It’s more than three miles to the nearest bus stop. It’s nearly five miles to the nearest supermarket. And from its spot on the suburban fringe, it sits nearly fifteen miles away from downtown Fresno.
This is when Sasha laced up her cross-trainers and hit the road.
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Using Google Maps and some advance scouting in the field, I plotted out the routes from the main entrance of Harlan Ranch to the nearest amenities. While the Harlan Ranch master plan does include a shopping complex at some point in the future, residents living there now must rely on their vehicles to get to basic services such as a grocery store, pharmacy, or bus stop.
For our experiment, we imagined that Sasha lived at Harlan Ranch and didn’t have access to a car.
I dropped her off at the Harlan Ranch entrance with a map, a bottle of water, and a small bag of radio gear. We arranged to meet three times along the 4.8-mile route to the supermarket, when I would refill her water bottle and check to see if she was OK. While Sasha walked, I photographed the area for the story’s photo gallery.
Not long after walking out of the development, Sasha faced long stretches of rural roads without sidewalks. She made her way along weed-strewn fields. She passed farmhouses and orchards. She said hello to a grazing horse more than once.
Sasha began in the mid-morning and she quickly faced the Central Valley heat, which rose to above 90 degrees by the walk’s end shortly before noon. Fresno’s notoriously poor air quality was technically “moderate” on this day, but a few days later would have been in the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” range.
Sweaty and tired, Sasha made it to the supermarket in about two hours. (We didn’t count our three check-ins toward the total walking time.) She eagerly gulped a Gatorade as we debriefed about the trip, luxuriating in the car’s full-blast air conditioning.
Her conclusion: Even under the best of circumstances, it would be nearly impossible to walk from Harlan Ranch to the nearest grocery store. Sasha had only walked one way – without lugging bags of groceries all the way back – and she was beat. If she lived in Harlan Ranch, she’d still have to rely on a vehicle, a contradiction of smart growth’s ultimate promise.
Jefferson Beavers is a freelance journalist based in Fresno. Listen to the companion radio feature with this post, reported by Central Valley bureau chief Sasha Khokha, airing Friday on The California Report.
All radio and web features from our series, “Miles to Go: Building a More Sustainable California,” are posted on our special coverage page.