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City of San Diego – Land Use & Community Design Program to Address Climate Change

Case Story

Climate Action Connection: Land Use & Community Design

San Diego’s City of Villages planning concept promotes mixed use neighborhoods and communities to reduce auto dependency and support a larger regional transit system, thus reducing vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. The city’s general plan also includes sustainable development and other carbon-reducing strategies.

Community:San Diego (San Diego County)

Population: 1.3 million


After two decades of expanding outward and reaching the limits of developable land, the City of San Diego’s recent general plan update incorporates a City of Villages concept that directs future growth to mixed-use communities that are pedestrian friendly and linked to regional transit.

Program Highlights

  • Mixed-use “villages” will cluster housing, shopping, jobs and civic uses around future regional transit stations.
  • Individual community plans will reflect the city’s general plan goals.
  • New infill growth strategy is dependent on coordination between land use and transportation planning.
  • Over time, intent is to reduce auto dependency with walkable, bikeable, and transit-linked neighborhoods.

Lessons Learned

  • It is more resource and time efficient to get community consensus on a vision statement or a council resolution, and then go forward with a general plan update.
  • When undergoing a general plan update, take advantage of e-mail to reach residents and stakeholders. Make documents available for review on the Internet, providing residents who otherwise cannot come to community meetings an opportunity for input.
  • Take advantage of local cable TV for outreach to the community providing residents the opportunity to watch and participate from home.

Resources to Learn More

The Rest of the Story…

The City of San Diego previously updated its general plan in 1979, when the city still contained a substantial amount of undeveloped land to accommodate new growth. As a result of subsequent growth, now less than four percent of the city’s land area is vacant and available for new development. Recognizing that future growth must come largely from redevelopment and infill, the city evaluated how to promote infill.

In 2002, the city council formally adopted the City of Villages strategy, as a part of a new strategic framework of the general plan. It became the guiding document for the general plan update adopted in 2008. During this time, the city completed a community-wide greenhouse gas inventory and subsequently a climate protection action plan. In addition to the conservation element of the general plan, they comprise San Diego’s sustainability goals.

City of Villages as Growth Management Strategy

The San Diego general plan and the City of Villages concept form the city’s growth management strategy. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are expected to decrease over time as villages are introduced within targeted areas of existing communities. Each village will become the heart of the community, designed for walkability, with housing, jobs, shopping and parks, and linked to other villages and activity centers by transit. The village strategy also emphasizes the importance of respecting the city’s natural open space network and the distinctive characteristics of individual neighborhoods.
Fourteen community plan updates are completed or will begin in the next fiscal year. These comprise approximately one-third of the city’s land area.

The village concept takes advantage of existing conditions and the potential to make existing neighborhoods and already urbanized and suburbanized areas more complete communities. Although “village” typically connotes smaller areas, San Diego has designated various levels of “village” to include its metro center, urban hubs, residential neighborhood centers, transit corridors, and future villages to be built on undeveloped or redeveloped land. Some of the city’s oldest malls, for example, are being planned for new mixed-use neighborhoods, including one whose redevelopment plan was approved by the city council and accepted into the LEED-ND (Neighborhood Development) pilot program.

Applicability to Other Communities

San Diego’s award winning general plan and its City of Villages concept demonstrates the potential to transform existing neighborhoods and zones into walkable, mixed use communities where transit connections provide links to employment and other specialized centers. Many of the mixed-use and transit concepts adopted in San Diego can be applied in smaller communities as well.

Compiled May 2009

This case story was prepared in partnership with the California Air Resources Board.


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