Take a drive (or ride) through Rohnert Park, and a couple things become immediately apparent — there's lots of chains and no downtown — no mingling place, no city center.
Drive a little further and the neighborhoods emerge in a familiar subarban spread: perfectly manicured lawns, streets that meander around quaint neighborhood parks and cul-de-sacs at the end of nearly every block.
But elected officials and educators have started to realize many problems that have surfaced, largely over the last 10 years, because of suburban sprawl — including a lack of population growth, , and dizzying — can be attributed, in part, to Rohnert Park's outdated design.
The city faces a 45-plus commercial vacancy rate, nearly 3,000 people have moved away since 2000 and unemployment has skyrocketed to 10.3 percent, up from 3.3 percent 10 years ago.
Early planned city development, that started here in 1962, serves as a stunning example of the post-World War II era — a time when families left crowded cities for suburbia, made possible by the vast expansion of freeways starting in the late '50s.
All-too-familiar to those of you who've lived here for decades, but only in the last year have elected officials begun to implement that could potentially . A conversation has begun, at the municipal and here, reexaminng the city's land uses and transportation systems — which are heavily reliant on personal automobiles and in many ways, separate people from one another.
American ideas about how to live and build communities have changed dramatically over time. For decades, families fled the dense urban grid for newer types of neighborhoods that felt safer, more private, even pastoral. Through their research, [researchers] are now making the argument that we got it all wrong: We’ve really been designing communities that make us drive more, make us less safe, keep us disconnected from one another, and that may even make us less healthy.
The problem is, the automobile culture that shifted people from urban America to the suburbs has separated land uses. That is, people are seaparated from where they live, work, shop and socialize. Increasingly, it's being called a stagnant model of economic development.
For Steven Orlick, a professor of environmental studies and planning at Sonoma State University, these ideas are crucial to understand as cities brace for rising fuel cost, weather economic hardships and prepare for growing populations.
"Rohnert Park was designed for the automobile, for driving," Orlick says. "This lifestyle, focused around the auto, has made us less healthy, it's hurting our economy and it's reducing our connectedness with one another."
Orlick, like some of the city's original developers, has acknowledged that it's caused one of the biggest criticisms of Rohnert Park, that there's no sense of community, no roots.
"What we're finding out in urban planning, is that the grid is good — many communities are bringing it back," Orlick added. "It connects people, and has the advantage of allowing people to get from here to there without having to change direction and get around odd-shaped lots."
The Atlantic article outlined the ideology after the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956:
Americans lost sight of that tightly knit model when we got into cars and began to envision something else: the Garden City. In the early 20th century, modernists decried overcrowded cities that were synonymous with pollution, slums, and poverty. They wanted to do away with unnecessary streets and give each factory worker and company man his own slice of the country. He would drive there, of course, first along a large arterial highway, then down a main thoroughfare, then a collector road, then a local street pulling into his own private driveway at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Orlick explained that Rohnert Park's street pattern, made up mostly of cul-de-sacs, limits entry and exit points, so it takes driving to get in and out of neighborhoods.
"The land-use pattern was never designed for pedestrians or bike riders," he said. "So retrofitting it is always going to be more expensive and difficult."
But the city has started to do exactly that.
New businesses are coming in, such as and , the city is expanding its and the City Council recently adopted an .
One sign officials realize the need for reimagining Rohnert Park, is the city's general plan, wich keeps in place cornerstones such as schools and parks near subdivisions, but it also calls for implementing mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development.
Orlick says reuniting uses — retail, with housing and job centers, and recreation, has the potential to make Rohnert Park better.
"It forces people to interact with one another; it builds community, a sense of connectedness," he says.
But he cautioned against bringing in more big box stores here.
"Look at what happened to , the city ruined that place by bringing in big boxes on the west side," Orlick said. "Now, for the residents who live over there, increasingly they're being forced to drive, and the plaza is devoid of commerce that provides shopping and jobs."
If the city continues to bring in chains and big boxes, it's going to drive small, family businesses out, he added.
"The city's form is likely to change more slowly than the values that produced it originally," Orlick said. "I wish I could be more upbeat about it, but times are changing."