Bay Area

The Regionalization of California, Part 2

Regions of California MapToday’s post continues and concludes the discussion of the county-level regionalization of California. We begin here with the Central Valley, one of the most distinctive aspects of the state’s physical geography. “Valley” is perhaps not the best term to describe this feature. I will never forget the words of Jung-man Lee, now a professor of geography at Seoul National University, when we visited the valley as graduate students in the 1980s. “Valley?,” he asked incredulously. “This is a not a valley, it is a vast plain!”

California Central Valley Region Map 1The Central Valley is characterized above all by its remarkably productive agriculture and its associated agro-industries, although it also includes many medium-sized cities. Of the top 10 agricultural counties (in terms of sales) in the United States in 2012, the Central Valley counted 7, while California as a whole counted nine 9. This region is characterized overall by low to medium wage levels, relatively high crime rates, California Central Valley Region Map 2high levels of unemployment, relatively low housing valuation, and large Hispanic populations.

California’s Central Valley is clearly differentiated into several sub-regions. The major distinction is between the San Joaquin Valley in the south and the Sacramento Valley in the north, both of which are named after their main rivers. The San Joaquin is a much wider and California Top Farm Counties Mapmore agriculturally productive valley than the Sacramento. It is also more densely populated and more urbanized.

California Farmland MapI have further divided both of these two constituent valleys into their own sub-regions. The northern San Joaquin counties have been differentiated from the “core” San Joaquin counties primarily because they are much more oriented toward the San Francisco Bay Area. Parts of San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, for example, almost function as bedroom communities for Silicon Valley; although the commutes are fierce, the housing-price differential easily explains the phenomenon. The northern San Joaquin counties also have slightly more liberal voting patterns than those to the south.

In regard to the Sacramento Valley, mostly urban Sacramento County (population 1.4 million) is clearly separated from the more conservative and rural counties to the north. I have appended neighboring Yolo County to the Sacramento sub-region, both because it is economically linked to it and because it is characterized by relatively left-wing voting patterns, owing largely to the presence of the University of California at Davis. Finally, I have marked Solano as an “affiliated county” because a substantial part of its territory is physically situated within the Central Valley and partakes in its agricultural economy. Portions of Contra Costa and Placer counties are also located in the Central Valley, but they are too small to merit inclusion on the map.



California Eastern Sierra Region MapThe next region that I have distinguished, “Eastern Sierra,” rarely appears in regionalization schemes, mostly because its population is so small (roughly 34,000). This is a sparsely settled area indeed, characterized by lofty peaks and arid lowlands, containing both the highest (Mount Whitney) and lowest (Death Valley) elevations in the lower 48 U.S. states. It also formerly included a productive agricultural area, the Owens Valley, but the water that made farming possible there was acquired by Los Angeles and piped south, an episode made famous by the film Chinatown. The northern two counties in the region are politically distinctive, as they are the only sparsely populated counties in the state that routinely vote for candidates in the Democratic Party. This oddity stems from the fact that many former urbanites have moved to the area to enjoy its spectacular scenery and outdoor recreation opportunities. A bizarre footnote to this phenomenon was the idea of turning Alpine into a majority-gay county in 1970. As summarized by the Wikipedia article on the Stonewall Nation:

In 1970, Alpine County had a population of about 430 people, with 367 registered voters. Under a recent California Supreme Court ruling, new county residents could register to vote after 90 days in residence. Activist Don Jackson presented his idea for taking over the county at a December 28, 1969 gay liberation conference at Berkeley, California. He was inspired by gay activist and writer Carl Wittman, who wrote in his “Gay Manifesto”, “To be a free territory, we must govern ourselves, set up our own institutions, defend ourselves….Rural retreats, political action offices…they must be developed if we are to have even the shadow of a free territory.” He (incorrectly) suggested that if as few as 200 gay people moved to Alpine County, they would constitute a majority of registered voters. Taking over the county government, he said, would result in, “a gay government, a gay civil service…the world’s first gay university, partially paid for by the state…the world’s first museum of gay arts, sciences and history…[and a] free county health service and hospital…”

Not surprisingly, the proposal did not gain traction. As noted in the same Wikipedia article, “Despite announcing in November 1970 that it had close to 500 people ready to move, in February 1971, the GLF [Gay Liberation Front] released a statement that it was abandoning Alpine County for a warmer climate. It has since been suggested that the entire Stonewall Nation idea was a hoax perpetrated by the Los Angeles GLF to generate mainstream publicity.”

California Bay Area Region Map 1Almost everyone agrees that the San Francisco Bay Area forms a distinctive region, although different sources delineate it in different ways. The most common definition, endorsed by the Wikipedia, is to include all nine countries that actually touch upon the Bay, even though Napa County barely does so. An alternative delineation, which seems to be diminishing, is that of a five-country Bay Area that coincides with the San Francisco Metropolitan Area (officially known as the “San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA Metropolitan Statistical Area”) as defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

California Bay Area Region Map 2I have, however, defined the Bay Area region somewhat idiosyncratically, excluding Napa and Sonoma counties, which are instead placed in the northwestern region (see the previous post), but including Santa Cruz County even though it does not come close to the Bay itself. I have done so because Santa Cruz is closely linked, especially in economic terms, to the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County, essentially). Santa Cruz could, however, just as easily be grouped with the Central Coast counties, as it often is.

The Bay Area is, in general, an affluent area characterized by extremely high housing prices and left-wing voting patterns. It also has a high proportion of Asian residents. I have not subdivided the Bay Area largely because its main sub-regions are county-based. The “South Bay, for example” is essentially Santa Clara County, while “the Peninsula” is San Mateo County. The “East Bay,” however, includes both Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
California Central Coast Region MapA “Central Coast” region is found in almost all California regionalization schemes, although, again, its delineation varies. Santa Barbara County in the south, for example, is often grouped instead with Los Angeles, and for good reason. San Benito County is sometimes excluded from the Central Coast as well, as it is far from coastal, but it is difficult to figure where else to put it (a few sources place it in the Bay Area). Overall, the Central Coast falls near the middle of most social and economic indicators. This position is somewhat deceptive, however, as the region includes both highly exclusive areas (especially in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties) and highly productive agricultural zones that are home to many poor farm workers. Monterey County ranks 4rth nationwide in terms of its value of agricultural production, thanks to the narrow but fertile Salinas Valley. This valley specializes in labor-intensive vegetable crops. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Agriculture dominates the economy of the valley. Promoters call the Salinas Valley “the Salad Bowl of the World” for the production of lettuce, broccoli, peppers and numerous other crops. The climate and long growing season are also ideal for the flower industry … In particular, a large majority of the salad greens consumed in the U.S. are grown within this region. Strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, and spinach are the dominant crops in the valley. Other crops include broccoli, cauliflower, wine grapes, and celery.

Smaller zones of equally intensive agriculture are also found in the other counties of the Central Coast region. Tourism is also highly developed in many areas, but the central coastal swath of the Central Coastal region is so rugged that tourism and almost everything else is quite constrained. This is the famed Big Sur area, noted for its spectacular scenery and sparse population.

County-level regionalization is a much trickier proposition in Southern California than in Northern California. Many southern California countries are vast, spanning several distinctive regions, and several have extremely large populations. Los Angeles County alone has more residents than 41 U.S. states. The vast majority of Southern California’s population, moreover, is concentrated in a somewhat narrow zone situated to the south and west of the Transverse and Peninsular mountain ranges, where one finds an essentially continuous belt of metropolitan population. As a result of these issues, I have aggregated the five counties of the Greater Los Angeles Area into one region, which I have dubbed, for want of a better term, “Southland.” That leaves just Imperial and San Diego counties, which are quite different from each other and thus deserve separate regional status. Imperial County stands out from all other counties in California, particularly in its demographic characteristics, as its population is roughly 80 percent Hispanic.


The Political Contradictions of Anti-Urban NIMBY Activism in California

This final entry on Northern California will conclude the series by elaborating on the previously stated thesis that the local drive to protect urban and inner suburban neighborhoods from development is self-contradictory. Although anti-development activists incline to the left, their land-use policies are actually conservative, undermining their own larger agenda. Earlier posts looked at environmental sustainability and class divergence, contending that NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) hostility to urbanization thwarts the transition to a lower-carbon economy and places extraordinary burdens on middle- and working-class people, especially young ones. This post will consider the effects of the movement on the broader political orientation of the United States. The argument, simply put, is that by obstructing development in urban cores of the Bay Area and other Democratic-voting metropolitan areas of the country, local preservationists push growth into more development-friendly parts of the country, which tend to be much more conservative. Such dynamics enhance the economic and political power of those places, and thus nudge the United States as a whole in a more conservative direction.

I must stress that such claims are intended to be politically neutral, in accordance with the non-ideological stance of GeoCurrents. I am not arguing, in other words, that enhancing the political power of right-leaning portions of the U.S. is bad, as this blog is concerned with empirical issues of “what is,” not with what ethical issues of “what ought to be.” Admittedly, several recent posts have violated this principle, openly advocating urban intensification. Neutrality is often difficult to maintain, and I let myself get carried away by personal concerns about climate change, economic stagnation, and the widening class divide in the U.S. The same posts do, however, rest on an empirical basis, outlining the contradictions between stated goals and the consequences of actions undertaken. It is a fact that most people in Palo Alto and similar communities want to reduce green-house gas emissions and lessen the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”; it is also a fact—or so I hope to have demonstrated—that opposition to urban intensification in these same communities actually has the opposite effects. Such an argument should be assessable by readers of any political persuasion. One could, for example, regard global warming as a hoax, welcome suburban expansion along metropolitan outskirts, and celebrate the glowing class disparity in the U.S. and still accept the thesis.

By preventing development in urban and old-suburban areas of the San Francisco metropolitan area, local activists shunt it elsewhere. Previous posts emphasized the Bay Area’s own exurban fringe in the northern San Joaquin Valley, but growth is also pushed into other parts of the country. States that gain from this process, Texas most notably, tend to be much more conservative than California. Such dynamics are experienced across the country, enhancing population and economic growth in Republic-voting areas and discouraging it in Democratic-voting ones. Partly as a result, the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives is shifting toward the more conservative parts of the country. Other factors, of course, contribute to this process, but it is difficult to deny the paradoxical consequences of supposedly left-wing NIMBY activism.

A number of conservative writers in the U.S. have noted the same general process, delighting in the diverging fortunes of the country’s two most populous states, contrasting the economic health of Texas with California’s distress. A March 14 post in the National Review Online is typical of the genre. Here Chuck DeVore, former Republican member of the California State legislature, blames California’s fiscal crisis on its high tax rates, powerful unions, obstructing bureaucrats, environmental regulations, litigious legal system, and “subsidization of poverty.” As an example of the difficulty of doing business in California and the ease of conducting it in Texas, DeVore cites Apple’s decision to build a new $304 million campus in Austin rather than in the Bay Area (more recent reports, however, claim that the project may actually go to Arizona). California’s impending fiscal catastrophe, conservative writers like DeVore stress, will probably result in yet another round of tax increases, which will drive away more businesses and people, potentially sending the state into a downward spiral.

Such charges may have some merit. California’s tax rates are high and will probably increase, discouraging investors and wage earners alike. But overall, the Bay Area remains a very attractive place in which to live and to do business, as is reflected in its land values and rents, both commercial and residential. (The same situation holds in much of Southern California as well.) Silicon Valley is again booming; according to a recent report, “Office occupancy in the region rose by 2.7 million square feet last year, the most since 2000, and rents may advance 11 percent to an average $36 a square foot in 2012.” Many people want desperately to live in communities such as Palo Alto, otherwise they would not be willing to spend $800,000 for small condos in undistinguished buildings or $1,200,000 for modest, mass-constructed tract houses from the 1960s. The real drag on local business is not California’s somewhat excessive taxation rates or its slightly more powerful unions than those found elsewhere, but rather its outrageous land and housing costs and its exasperating obstacles to new urban developments. Apple currently wants to build a gargantuan 2.8 million square-feet corporate headquarters in Santa Clara County, which would dwarf its planned Texas project; gaining permission to do so will prove a challenge, to say the least. Apple’s proposed “space-ship” building can be criticized on both aesthetic and environmental grounds; encompassing 5.7 million square feet of landscaping, the behemoth would not be pedestrian-friendly. But the mere fact that that it is being pursued runs counter to the thesis that businesses and people are being driven out of California by the state’s left-wing policies.

Liberal and conservative commentators alike tend to by-pass NIMBY opposition to urban development when discussing California’s economic crisis. Right-wing writers prefer to focus on taxation, unionization, regulation, and the legal environment, as these issues allow them to score points in national-level debates. Left-wing writers are often reluctant to confront contradictions within their own political camp, and hence try to place all blame on their conservative opponents.

A March 17 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Seeking Growth Without Sprawl,” presents a perfect example of such liberal blinders on the urbanization issue. The article touts an “ambitious new regional plan” that would steer new developments towards existing cities and public transportation corridors, based on the new urban intensification paradigm. So far, so good. But when examining opposition to the plan, the article mentions only criticisms put forward by conservative activists. Some right-wingers have attacked the proposal for supposedly ignoring consumer desires, as “future workers and their families will want an environment of single family subdivisions.” That such an objection ignores market realities, supposedly the touchstone of contemporary conservatism, is not mentioned. The article goes on to highlight critics on the extreme right, those who view the entire urbanization scheme as part of a nefarious United Nations plot to extinguish American freedom and establish global governance.

Emphasizing such opposition is an easy course for the San Francisco Chronicle to take, as it fits well with the left-leaning proclivities of most of its readers. But it is also misleading. When actual plans for urbanization projects are put on the table, meaningful resistance comes not from the tiny cadre of U.N conspiracy theorists, but rather from superficially liberal activists who do not oppose urban intensification per se, but certainly do not want it impinging on their own communities. Pointing out such a contradiction could be editorially imprudent, potentially alienating an influential part of the newspaper’s readership. As a result, the real issues are left unmentioned.