William Fulton is president of Solimar Research Group and a senior research fellow at the Southern California Studies Center at USC. His latest book is "The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl," coauthored with Peter Calthorpe

For 20 years, we haven’t given the idea of limits a single thought. Now we can’t get away from them. We don’t have enough electricity--or, at least, we don’t have enough money to buy all the electricity we want. We don’t have enough houses for all the people who live in California. We don’t have enough pavement for all the cars we own. We don’t have enough water, enough university classrooms, enough parks, enough anything.

Worst of all, we don’t have a useful paradigm for how to deal with these limits. Our only models are badly outdated. There’s the 1950s model of ignoring limits and barging ahead no matter what the cost, an approach favored by business interests. Then there’s the 1970s model of environmentalism, which appears to be our only alternative. But it’s not.

California has exceeded its original design capacity and therefore must be retrofitted based on a new set of assumptions.


The 1970s generation of California environmentalists rebelled against sumptuous suburban lifestyles. Their ethic called for downsizing everything that seemed too big and halting everything else.

Not enough electricity? Buy everybody a new refrigerator. Not enough water? Buy everybody a new toilet. Not enough clean air? Buy everybody a new tailpipe. Not enough gasoline? Buy everybody a smaller car.

This worked up to a point. There were a lot of inefficiencies to be wrung out of the system--a lot of big cars, dirty tailpipes, many-gallon toilets and loudly humming refrigerators. When it wasn’t enough, we adopted then-First Lady Nancy Reagan’s stern motto, “Just say no!” No to new freeways, new power plants, new housing subdivisions, new everything. By stopping construction, the theory was, we could restrict growth and, therefore, minimize the impact of California’s people on the state’s landscape.

Nice theory. Small may be beautiful, but California is big, and there’s not a whole lot anybody can do about it. Buying everybody a new refrigerator was a good move, postponing the need to build new power plants. Shutting down construction had a different impact. It protected many communities from being overrun by growth, mostly pretty ones along the coast where affluent residents had political clout, but it also gave rise to the huge imbalances we see today, as when the 91 Freeway is jammed with commuters traveling from Riverside County to Irvine.

The point is, we stopped building freeways, we stopped building reservoirs, we stopped building power plants--and that didn’t stop California from growing or prospering. Today, our state is home to almost 35 million people, nearly double the number we had when the first “era of limits” set in. And thanks to the rise of the Internet, the entertainment industry, the garment trade and some other key economic sectors, we have truly emerged, for the first time, as the center of the economic world.

California has consistently added 500,000 people a year since the beginning of World War II. To put it another way, the state has been adding a brand-new Long Beach every single year for longer than most people in California have been alive. Despite the fervent desire of the environmentalists to wave a magic wand and make our population stop growing, people will continue to come.


What makes the ‘70s model of environmental activism irrelevant is that California is not experiencing standard suburban growth. Conventional thinking would suggest that if the population is growing and the landscape is being marred as a result, you should redirect growth to the inner city. But the truth is, Californians are widely dispersed. It is not a choice between spilling out into the hinterland or repopulating the inner city. In record numbers, we are doing both at the same time. A new report, to be released next month by the Southern California Studies Center and USC, reveals that, in the last 20 years, almost half of the region’s population growth--more than 2 million people--has occurred in communities considered “built out” in 1980.

Today, as in the 1970s, we can still postpone the need to construct more infrastructure if we use our resources wisely--and there is no question that we must do so. Farmers still use the overwhelming majority of water, for example, and for the cost of a few new dams, we could help them make their operations more efficient and free up a large quantity of water to meet the state’s other needs.

Even when we have built infrastructure in the last 20 years, we’ve generally done it the old-fashioned way--using the suburban growth model, which consumes resources and costs money. For example, K-12 public schools.

We have built them in record numbers, more or less keeping up with record increases in student enrollment. By and large, we have built them because state residents have willingly increased their own taxes to pay for them. This is a remarkable achievement. Yet, with a few exceptions, we have done it using the old suburban formulas dictated by the state, especially for the amount of land that schools must consume. The state requires most high schools to be located on parcels of land at least 40 acres in size. In high-cost areas, this often creates sprawl by driving school boards to buy land in areas designated for farming--and sometimes sets up a pesticide-spraying conflict with farmers. When we seek to deviate from the suburban formula, we often get caught up in a Belmont Learning Complex-like fiasco over contaminated urban land.

Designers will often tell you that the best designs emerge from the greatest constraints--and that’s where we are in California today. The great suburban infrastructure plans of the 1950s--freeways, universities, water channels--effectively accommodated a state of 20 million to 25 million people. In order to shoehorn twice that number into California, we’re going to have to create a new set of great infrastructure plans. In some cases, this might even mean reexamining ambitious old plans that would seem to encourage suburban sprawl--only do it with the understanding that an era of limits should force choices, rather than yes-no paradigms.

For example, in the original freeway plan for California, Caltrans proposed a freeway called Highway 65--a parallel route to Interstate 5 and Highway 99 running along the eastern edge of the Sierra foothills. Only small pieces of it were built, and for 30 years it’s been politically impossible even to discuss constructing roads like this in California.


Now, suddenly, it’s possible again. Not because anybody’s burning to fly at 75 miles an hour from Arvin to Oroville, but because growth is inevitable and infrastructure matters. Everybody knows that urban growth will hammer the Central Valley over the next 20 years, and everybody knows it will follow the freeways. The question has shifted from “whether” to “where.” Do nothing, and the growth will migrate to the fertile farmland in the corridor between Highways 5 and 99. Build Highway 65, and you’ve got a shot at deflecting it eastward, off the prime farmland.

An era of limits means an era of forcing choices. In California’s last era of limits, we tried to bend the trends by highlighting and changing the choices individual people make--flushing toilets, driving around. Ultimately, that didn’t work well, because people don’t always make the kinds of choices policy wonks think they should. When former Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to force everybody toward public transit by allowing freeways to become more congested, it didn’t occur to him that people would simply buy more comfortable cars and use cell phones.

In the new era of limits, we must bend the trends by redesigning the state--and our conception of how we use public infrastructure to accommodate growth. Instead of simply building big infrastructure wherever we can, the limitations we face require us to build the right things in the right places and, in the process, conserve the right resources. This is a much more difficult task--but, ultimately, it is one that will allow California to thrive, rather than struggle, as our population continues to grow.