San Diego works to align zoning laws with sustainability goals

Little Italy
A mixed-use development in San Diego, CA’s Little Italy. Image by Chris via Flickr.

If all goes according to plan, San Diego, CA will soon pass a Climate Action Plan full of ambitious goals for reducing emissions. Integral to the plan is a vision of smart growth: adopting more sustainable land use patterns, particularly through walkable mixed-use, transit-oriented development.

In advance of the plan’s passage, the City of San Diego suspected that its zoning code could be doing more to encourage sustainable development. So they brought in the experts.

On October 9, 2014, a technical assistance team from Smart Growth America and Clarion visited San Diego for a Sustainable Land Use Code Audit workshop. The instructors worked with stakeholders to review key portions of the zoning code to identify how they could better support the mixed-use and transit-oriented development envisioned by the City’s General Plan and made all the more urgent by the anticipated Climate Action Plan.

Before arriving in San Diego, the Smart Growth America/Clarion team audited specific portions of the local zoning code and produced a detailed report identifying priority issues and options to address them. At the workshop, representatives from multiple city departments, the U.S. EPA, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), neighborhood groups, and private sector professionals convened to discuss these recommendations in detail.

Through the workshop, participants tackled key questions about how the City of San Diego might use zoning to promote a realistic mix of uses in targeted development areas, ensure that mixed-use and transit-oriented development projects are compatible with surrounding neighborhoods, and incentivize more mixed-use and transit-oriented development. The Smart Growth America/Clarion team, along with City employees, also met with representatives from the San Diego Mayor’s Office, who expressed their support.

Not only did the workshop help lay the groundwork for code changes that will bring zoning regulations into better alignment with the Climate Action Plan, it also furthered the “City of Villages” vision laid forth in San Diego’s General Plan. The “City of Villages” scenario envisions San Diego containing many compact, walkable neighborhoods connected through regional transit and buffered by green and open space.

San Diego was one of 18 communities selected by Smart Growth America in January 2014 to participate in the third year of its free technical assistance program. Stretching from New Hampshire to California, the communities selected represent major cities, suburban centers, and rural towns alike.

The program, made possible through a five-year Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, seeks to develop local planning solutions that help communities grow in ways that benefit families and businesses, while protecting the environment and preserving a sense of place. Three other nonprofit organizations—Forterra, Global Green USA and Project for Public Spaces—also received competitively awarded grants under this program to help communities get the kinds of development they want.

Workshop materials:

Smart Growth America’s technical assistance has helped over 50 communities from California to Maine achieve their goals. To see results and recommendations from our past workshops, click here >>


Technical assistance