Hikers on a trail in O’Neill Regional Park have easy access to this park, which is situated between the communities of Lake Forest, Cota de Caza, and Trabuco Canyon. Credit: Melanie Schlotterbeck, Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks

The future economic vibrancy of Southern California requires building an adequate housing supply that accommodates a growing population. This shouldn’t come at the cost of protecting natural lands and open spaces. A vibrant future also requires making sure that residents have the parks and clean air and water needed to support healthy communities.

Beach goers enjoy walking, talking, and flying kites at Crystal Cove State Park near Laguna Beach and Newport Beach.
Credit: Melanie Schlotterbeck, Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks

A project led by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is an important step in planning for the region’s future. Known as the SoCal Greenprint, the web-based tool converts more than 100 publicly available data sources into useful, interactive maps of the region’s natural and built environment. The project has been consistently receiving input from more than 60 agencies and organizations across the six SCAG counties, along with developers and the builders, for the last 18 months.

SCAG committed to creating a comprehensive mapping tool in its 2016 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy. By the 2020 Plan, this commitment to build a mapping tool was formalized as a mitigation measure in the environmental documents. SCAG staff began developing the SoCal Greenprint in January 2020 to fulfill this promise. This resource—that was scheduled to launch in Fall 2021—was paused on July 1 by SCAG’s Regional Council to address recent concerns raised by the building industry that the tool could create barriers to future development—even though the development of the free, optional-to-use Greenprint does not create any new rules or regulations.

There is a misconception that building an adequate supply of housing and being good stewards of the environment are conflicting priorities, as SoCal Greenprint opponents try to argue. Groups from across the region urge SCAG’s decision makers to keep the project on track, meet the requirements established in SCAG plans and environmental documents, and ensure that this invaluable tool is finished on-time.

A view from a hilltop park of South Orange County which shows the integration of coastal parks, housing, golf courses, and transportation corridors. Credit: Melanie Schlotterbeck, Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks

According to a 2019 report by the Orange County Business Council, for every 2.1 new projected jobs for the county, one housing unit will be built. At that rate, the county is expected to have a shortage of 114,031 homes by 2045, which is especially problematic for low-income residents at a time when the economy is creating more low wage, service sector jobs than any other category.

At the same time, 64% of Orange County residents live in areas with less than the national standard of three acres of park space per 1,000 residents. Even worse, 11% of residents live further than a half-mile from a park, meaning it is harder for them to take advantage of the benefits that nature provides—especially during a pandemic.

The SoCal Greenprint takes existing data and synthesizes it to create a more complete picture of the possibilities of incorporating nature in planning for an area. Using this tool, developers and city officials will be able to easily assess what conservation and development opportunities are available to design a sustainable and resilient region—especially knowing the climate-related challenges that lie ahead: high heat days, drought, coastal erosion, and wildfire.

Houses in this Yorba Linda neighborhood have faced numerous wildfires because they were built in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone. Credit: Bob Kanne

The SoCal Greenprint supports better planning by displaying different data layers simultaneously in an easy-to-use map format. For example, a landowner who wants to consider the future of their property would be able to access crucial information like the zoning and land use designations, proximity to water features, important plants and animals, and nearby parks or trails. The map also includes baseline information like the location of fault lines, floodplains, agricultural resources, areas prone to wildfire, potential sea level rise, water district jurisdictions, and air basin geographies. This meaningful information could help a landowner determine what is possible on their property, whether to sell to conservation or propose development. That decision is still protected under private property rights. The Greenprint does not limit landowner property rights.

Access to information and transparency in the process enables decision makers, developers, and landowners to construct the healthy and sustainable communities which include the housing and parkland that residents need. As advocates, we, together with SCAG, must work with the homebuilders to ensure the Greenprint is a tool that facilitates development of much-needed housing, while simultaneously allowing land conservation to continue with willing sellers.

This multi-use project in Brea includes a medical facility, an apartment complex, and two condominium complexes—one of which includes 20 affordable units. Credit: Melanie Schlotterbeck, Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks

There is a growing number of diverse voices that are urging our regional leaders to build more housing in our city centers near transit and at appropriate densities needed to address the housing shortage without compromising the natural resources that make our region one of the most beautiful and biodiverse in the world. I hope that SCAG leadership gives the stakeholders building our future the tools they need to help Southern California meet its housing and environmental needs and give residents the healthy, vibrant future they deserve.

Melanie Schlotterbeck is a consultant for the Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, a conservation organization based in Orange County.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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