By Norma Damashek
Albert Einstein searched for a unified theory that would unite the forces of nature (he had his eye on relativity and electromagnetism).
I, too, have been searching for a unified theory—albeit a more modest one—to unite the forces of nature (human, in this case) that make San Diego the chronically backwater/ amorphous/ uninspired/ tunnel-visioned/ closed-shop/ quasi-corrupt/ rigidly-manipulated/shady city it is.
Come join the search. Just follow the trail of clues, click on a sampling of news links about San Diego, and you’ll discover a unifying theme that even Einstein would find surprising.
Clue #1: City governments are not bush league versions of the ones at the top. The people and forces that drive, define, and control city governments are different from the ones that steer state and federal government.
Clue #2: At the local level, control and power over city affairs is in the hands of a land-based growth coalition – private interests that profit from increased densities and intensification of land use. Another term for intensification of land use is growth.
Clue #3: Who belongs to this influential and politically powerful growth coalition? Corporate investors. Developers. Landlords. Bankers. Newspaper publishers. Land use attorneys. Real estate syndicates. Building trades unions. Realtors. Utility companies. Boosters like the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Economic Development Corporation, Chamber of Commerce, and Taxpayers Association.
Clue #4: The desire for and profit from growth is the glue that bonds and binds these land-based interests, even when individual members of the growth coalition are at odds over a specific political, social, or civic issues.
Clue #5: Plain and simple: the goal of land-based growth coalitions is to make money off land and buildings by promoting specific government actions and decisions that will maximize profits through increases in the value of their private land holdings.
(This contrasts with the goal of corporate interests, which is to maximize profits from the sale of goods and services while trying to circumvent governmental involvement.)
Clue #6: What do mayors and city council people spend most of their time and attention on? Land use and growth: suburban retrofits… new office buildings… low-income housing… town centers… residential developments… land giveaway… construction labor agreements… tax incentives for institutions and corporations… funding schemes for sports arenas and convention centers… hotel and tourism expansion… height and building code variances… zoning changes… urban overhauls… infrastructure to keep up with demands of new growth…
(Note this inconsistency: on the national level, business interests condemn job creation and other government interventions in the private sphere. But at the city level, the pro-growth coalition actively promotes, engages in, and depends upon city government intervention to intensify land use and ensure maximum profits for the private sphere.)
Clue #7: In other words, growth-related land use decisions are the meat and potatoes of city politics. In fact, San Diego is a textbook example of a growth machine whose central mission is to maximize land values and profits for private owners.
We’ve reached the end of the trail of clues. It led us straight to the theory of the Growth Machine. Is it the end of the road for San Diego?
Not if we open our eyes to the way the growth machine works in our city and decide that the way things work is not good enough for our city, our neighborhoods, or our society.
Not if we dethrone the controlling, self-enriching, home-grown growth coalition that’s held our city hostage for decades.
Not if we replace our focus on growth (intensified land use for private benefit) with a focus on development (qualitative improvements for public benefit).
Not if we demand the creation of good and sustainable jobs that maximize public wealth through reinvestment in our streets, social services, sidewalks, sewer pipes, bridges, water stabilization projects, libraries, recreation centers, clean air, public transit, parks… in our arts, music, sciences, and education…
Only then will San Diego lose its civic identity as a backwater/ amorphous/ uninspired/ tunnel-visioned/ closed-shop/ quasi-corrupt/ rigidly-manipulated/ shady city and stand a chance of becoming a city to be proud of.
(You can read a fuller description of San Diego’s growth machine in action in Anatomy of Failure: planning and politics...)