The Original Smart Growth County: Marin

In Marin, we rebelled in the 1960s. Though our beloved trains and ferries were long gone, destroyed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway 101, we refused to allow West Marin to be built over.

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City. Mayors, activists, councilmembers, and the odd blogger came out to share successes and failures in their communities in the hopes that others could learn from their examples. And after it all, one thing is clear: Marin has it pretty good.

Smart growth came about in the early 90s as the response to auto-oriented sprawl. Though it can mean many things, the basic purpose is improving access for walking and bicycling. Within a 15 minute drive is a certain number of residences and businesses. Within a 15 minute walk there is less. In a place with high access for walkers, however, there is too much density for everyone to move around in cars, leading to congestion if that demand isn’t well-managed. Similarly, in a place with high access for cars, there is too little density for people to be able to walk with any efficiency.

While there have always been low-density places for the people who want peace and quiet away from the town center, the last 60 years has seen a great proliferation of such places. In cities like Tulsa or Houston, the city centers themselves were transformed to improve automobile access at the expense of walking access. What activists term sprawl was the outward growth of this style.

In Marin, we rebelled in the 1960s after we saw what freeways were doing to the rest of the Bay Area. Though our beloved trains and ferries were long gone, destroyed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway 101, we refused to allow West Marin to be built over. We developed our landmark Corridors plan, ensuring sprawl would not rule our day.

A centerpiece of smart growth is a commercially strong and walkable town, and almost every city and community in Marin has one. These are spaces where you can walk from a nearby neighborhood or park your car once and stroll the strip. They are places with a high density of destinations. They define their community. After all, what would Mill Valley be without Miller Avenue? Or San Rafael without Fourth Street? Other cities aren’t so lucky.

But a place where you can walk isn’t much good if you can’t walk anywhere else, or if it’s unsafe to bike around town. On this, too, Marin has a leg up on its peers.

Surprising though it is, the fact that we have sidewalks on nearly all but the most rural streets and arterial roads is a rarity, and it shows in the pedestrian fatality rates. Across the US, there are 1.38 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people. In California, it’s 1.6 per 100,000, but in Marin it’s less than half that. In 2008, Marin only had 0.6 pedestrians die per 100,000 people. Though every death is a tragedy, Marin is doing far better than the country at large.

Our focus on smart growth – not to mention the transit-oriented bones left by that rail system – has paid off in how we commute. Our county has the second lowest rate of car commuters in the state, surpassed only by San Francisco. If we add carpools, we are tied with San Mateo County for third. One in three Marin commuters travel by a means other than a single-occupant vehicle. One in ten take transit, third best in the state.

That’s not to say Marin doesn’t have its shortcomings. Our bicycle infrastructure is good but not complete. Our zoning codes needlessly inhibit small units and drive up housing costs. And between those walkable town centers are drivable strips, meant more to be sped through than lingered in.

But Marin has a lot to teach the rest of the country. I was raised on the Marin sense of pride, the understanding that if only the United States would be more like Marin we’d have a more sustainable, prosperous world. Marinites should smile that the movement towards smart growth around the world is in essence an attempt to take the path Marin took 40 years ago. We should smile, that is, and roll up our sleeves.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Bill McGee February 18, 2013 at 07:38 AM
Ricardo - here is some more of Marin's population data for you to follow: Marin's population went from 222,568 in 1980 to 252,409 in 2010 = an overall increase of 29,841. During that same time Novato's population increased from 43,916 to 51,904 = total growth of 7,988. Since 1980 Novato has accounted for an incrase of 7,988 of Marin's overall incrase of 29,841. Novato accounts for just under 28% of Marin's growth since 1980. 1980 is a significant census data point for Marin as that marked the end of the big boom years according to the figures.
Kevin Moore February 18, 2013 at 05:29 PM
Hi Bill, I always appreciate more facts being brought to view. The chart I displayed only went to 2009 as that is when I created it. I had to remake it to show 2010 and 2011. From 2001 to 2011, Marin is up 3% and Sonoma up 5% over 10 years. I made the charts to counter the claim, "They will need to add 2 more lanes to 101 and 2 more lanes and 2 more lanes..." These charts show growth in Sonoma has slowed. The building boom days are over. You can build 30,000 more houses, but then you end up with Stockton, lots of houses, few good jobs. I can't remember when 101 went from 2 lanes to 4 lanes in Marin. I think it happened in the 1960's. Anyone know the exact dates? Here is a photo of 101 in Rhonert Park in 1958. Highway 101 is two lanes. http://cdm15763.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15763coll10/id/172/rec/20 The other often repeated saying is, "We need affordable housing for police, firemen, and nurses. Asked how many affordable housing units are in Marin and how many police officers and firemen are living in them ends the discussion. People just repeat a popular saying without knowing if it has any validity. I tried out to be a fireman. In Reno, theywork 24 hours for 3 days in 10 days. With 9 commute days in a month, it is easy to live anywhere.
Bill McGee February 19, 2013 at 01:33 AM
Hi Kevin, I agree with your conclusion on population and most everything else you posted. I think they need to add lanes to 101 to alleviate the backup at the Novato Narrows. There is already a backup there and it has been miserable for a long time. Our infrustructure should meet current demand.
Rico February 19, 2013 at 03:31 AM
Kevin, thanks for the cool photo of RP. I have a friend from Marin who bought a house up there in the original "A" tract in the photo, and watched RP grow with the B,C,D and E tracts. RP is a typical flat suburb that could be anywhere, and all that development gave me a lot of work in the 80's. I did a lot of signs and striping for the cities of RP, Cotati and Santa Rosa, on public roads and private property. What ever happened to the development proposal to build hundreds of more homes in RP around 2006 ? I think it fizzeled out. I have been working for developers and public agencies in Marin and Sonoma counties since the early 80's, and I loved all the work created for many of us from this development boom. But the party is over now. All I can say is, I'm glad all that development was up in the north bay, and not where I live (Mill Valley). The commute was a drag, but it was a reverse commute and I often drove company vehicles and got paid for it too ! I worked on the new Fireman's fund building in Novato, laid out all the markings on San Marin Dr, and the 3000 stalls in the parking lot too, and that might be in for a redo in the future. Growing up mainly in west Marin, and southern Marin, I was never concerned about development ruining the area, but when I got a lot of work up in the north bay, I loved all the work. I know firsthand what has been going on, and this new age urbanism is a joke to me, it's plastic, there is no room, water or money to sustain it all.
Bill McGee February 19, 2013 at 03:59 AM
The other consideration for traffic is the fact that it has gotten worse since the economy started to recover. Traffic was not as bad around 2007-2011 but in the last year it is starting to get back to "normal bad" on highway 101. Recovery is slow and we are only about halfway there but as things get better traffic will get worse. A lot of the flux in traffic on 101 is contractors. Contractors tend to be on the go early in the morning (5AM to 6AM) and again 2PM to 4PM. They are on the road in the afternoon when school traffic is heavy and before traditional commute traffic. The fact that the construction industry is on the upswing is a good barometer for our economy even though we have a way to go, it does not bode well for traffic.


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