Central Valley Faces “Smart Growth” Conundrum

How “smart” is it if you can’t walk to the store…any store?

Jefferson Beavers

Reporter Sasha Khokha hits the road.

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.
View Central Valley Smart Growth in a larger map

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.

  • http://www.planbike.com Jody Brooks

    I appreciate the point of this piece but why no consideration of the bicycle?

    Bicycles are perfectly suited to commuting across the 1-10 KM range (with groceries) regardless of weather: the distances described in your piece.

  • http://dkzody.wordpress.com dkzody

    Jody, some of us cannot ride a bike, even if we had one, but we can walk. I lived in SF for 15 months and got around fine without a car. In Fresno, for over 50 years, I cannot go anywhere without driving. My friends all say, oh, you can walk in Fresno. Yeah, miles and miles to reach a store, usually with no sidewalks, and traffic that does not like pedestrians. We are very car-centric.

  • http://www.planbike.com Jody Brooks

    What are typical reasons you and others can’t ride a bicycle or full-size tricycle with cargo basket? Is it a disability or something else?

  • jskdn

    “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.”

    It’s reserving space for future shopping that matters. Good planning provides for future coherence that may not occur immediately because it’s not economically viable until sufficient density of development is reached.

  • http://jeffersonbeavers.com Jefferson Beavers

    Jody: Good point about the bicycles. They are, as you mention, an option.

    Sasha and I did consider having her ride a bike for the experiment, but we opted for walking instead. We chose walking because lugging Sasha’s bike from our bureau office near downtown out to Harlan Ranch seemed too cumbersome. Plus, having Sasha narrate her story with her radio gear while riding a bike would have also been a challenge. Bicyclists on the route would face similar challenges that walkers face– disappearing sidewalks, inconsistent shoulders and bike lanes, the heat, etc.

    Jskdn: Another good point. Developer Leo Wilson was proud that his development included a future shopping center, and the potential seems strong for those amenities to develop later when the Central Valley’s economy rebounds.

    But Wilson also told us that one of his other master-planned developments in Fresno recently got its shopping center– after an 18-year wait. That put the large expanse of unturned dirt where the future Harlan Ranch shopping center would be into perspective for us.

  • jskdn

    I add that I see no reason not to make that reserved land available to someone who wants to open a temporary store that could provide some level of necessities that would remove some of the need for driving.

  • JML

    May I suggest E. Huntington Blvd. from R Street to Cedar? Or does the criteria only include brand-new developments?

  • http://www.planbike.com Jody Brooks

    Fyi – folding bikes fit nicely in cars, are very affordable and common.

    Also, bikes have the same rights as cars on the road so they don’t necessarily need a shoulder or bike lane.

    As for sidewks, it is actually illegal for bikes to use them unless signs explicitly permit it.

    If the real solution of avoiding sprawl is unrealized, bikes can help.

    Nohing cited in this thread surmounts their use. This is why examples of bikes working in analogous contexts (hot, sprawling, car-dominated) abound around the world.

  • Tracey Scharmann

    Great pictures & story. I found the little cohousing community, LaQuerencia on Alluvial & Chestnut in Clovis has done a pretty awesome job at smart growth. A block away from grocery and retail stores, bus stop, and there’s at least three churches within walking distance. The community has park, pool, and is solar-powered. It really looks like the little green community that could.

  • http://jeffersonbeavers.com Jefferson Beavers

    Jskdn: Harlan Ranch does organize a small but consistent farmer’s market at its clubhouse once a week.

    JML: We were looking at newer, specifically designated high-density smart-growth developments only, as defined by the SJ Valley blueprint.

  • http://www.lgc.org Judith Corbett

    The Valley once knew how to do it right. Try the popular Tower District in Fresno!

  • Carey

    The most sustainable growth brings new life to existing neighborhoods. Many great new higher-density models are springing up in Fresno, for example in the Cultural Arts District and Mural District — starting with the Vagabond Lofts in 2004 and with the Mayflower Lofts expected to open this October. Restoration projects for homes in the historic Lowell neighborhood are also well underway. People of all incomes can enjoy living within walking distance to the Farmers Market, Amtrak station and work! Even during this economic downturn, sustainable, equitable growth like this is happening in many places throughout the Valley.

  • Joe

    Another very real issue with the sprawling central valley is a marked decrease in agricultural production. The paving over of thousands of acres of prime ag real estate is likely to be the best way to unite conservatives and progressives on policy solutions that save farms and promote density. Now try going for a walk in the outskirts of Bakersfield….

  • cyndi

    What a lame story! The trip to the grocery store would have been an easy 15 minute jaunt on a bicycle.

  • http://lomaprieta.sierraclub.org/bcfc/index Irvin Dawid

    I was ‘transfixed’ as I listened to this excellent report on an (alleged) smart growth project in the SJV – though those awards it won are real.
    I recognize that Harlan Ranch is a start – but there is much work to do here.
    Yes, bikes play an important role in almost all human developments – dense, urban SF probably has one of the best bikable landscapes on the West Coast, second only to Portland. Unlike these dense cities, though, I think that the bike plays a more urgent role in less dense regions like where I live, the San Francisco Peninsula – composed of a string of low dense suburbs from SF to San Jose (and including SJ, for that matter).
    But bikes provide a ‘mitigation’ for what’s lacking – they are not a solution to the problem. What’s needed are the three Ds: Density, Design (designed around transit and walkability, as opposed to driving), and Diversity – a mix of uses – which clearly is lacking in Harlan Ranch.
    Check out the website for my name – I used the volunteer committee I work with to try to influence growth in my region. Sadly where I live it seems like the predominant effort is to simply ‘stop growth’…..but change happens regardless,so it’s best to try to shape it!

  • ilovefresno

    The main problem with Harlan Ranch is that it is basically a new city- leapfrog developments that propose to just start from scratch and do things right are missing the point. Now everyone who lives out there commutes long distances to work, school, daycare, entertainment in the city core but at least they can walk to the park- and they have parks!

  • http://www.beeri.org Be’eri Moalem

    This time around (when developing a huge swatch of land with lots of money) leave enough farms in tact so the community can grow its own fresh food!

    • Craig Miller

      That’s a great idea. There was something like that in the original redevelopment plan for Treasure Island in SF Bay. I’m not sure it survived the latest cut.

  • Michael Michaud

    I help manage a small family business focused on property management for and renovations to older downtown buildings in Kingsburg CA (a small town 20 miles south of Fresno in the Central Valley).

    As we renovate and repurpose downtown buildings, we’re seeing increased pedestrian and downtown activity. Fortunately, the original design of the downtown area makes walking and biking very inviting.

  • Alan Kandel

    What a great article!

    At any rate, what Harlan Ranch does do is provide more “compact” living compared to what is typical in Fresno; that’s all. What this is and what smart growth is are two different things. If this is what constitutes smart growth in Valley, that’s indeed sad commentary.

    Also sad is our atrocious air quality. What caused this situation in the first place and what will it take to bring the air back into attainment? The largest contributor to poor air quality in California – and that includes the Valley – is transportation (mobile sources). In fact, 80 percent of the Valley’s air pollution can be blamed on transportation.

    According to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in its Jan. 2011 “Valley Air News” publication, “Mobile sources account for the majority of the Valley’s air pollution. Truck’s, passenger vehicles and buses produce 56.8 percent of total nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions in the air basin. Last year, the District’s truck grants removed more than 6,000 tons of NOx.”

    I’m not sure how much of a reduction this is in the grand scheme of things, but so much more in the way of mitigation strategies can and should be done.

    As for the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, from the Jan. 26, 2009 Blueprint Summit news release, there is this:

    “The San Joaquin Valley Policy Council, consisting of two elected officials from the governing boards of each of the eight counties’ Councils of Governments (sic), will decide whether to accept the recommendations from the Summit and the Blueprint Regional Advisory Council, which selected a scenario in November that favors compact growth and more transit choice. Following the Policy Council’s action, each county’s supervisors and all of the city council members in the San Joaquin Valley will vote on ratification of the final regional blueprint. The outcome could potentially be a framework for future growth in the region, but all land use decisions will ultimately be up to local officials.”

    My answer to this comes from the “Growth, San Joaquin Valley Style,” feature in the Nov. 2006 “Fresno” magazine issue in the concluding paragraph. I wrote: “Time will surely tell in which direction California’s cities will grow. Some will grow up, while there will be others that grow out. The way that encourages and enables citizens to live, work, and play in the most beneficial manner to their physical and psychological well-being, is the one that should ultimately be promoted. To do anything less, would be unwise.”

    For what it’s worth, the publication, “A Landscape of Choice,” was the most authoritative work ever in terms of identifying the Valley’s problems and recommending solutions. In my opinion, the information contained in this comprehensive guide (“guide” is no doubt the best descriptor I can think of for this particular publication) is far superior to that of Valley’s own blueprint “land use and transportation planning process.”

    • Craig Miller

      That “Landscape of Choice” document was written more than a decade ago but is still available as a .pdf download from the documents page at the Fresno Council of Govts:
      http://bit.ly/p2fBNv