A Greater Marin

What’s your favorite place in Marin?  For some, it’s the top of a nearby hill – one can see for miles, in sync with the nature of the place: dry grass, an oak grove to one side, and the smell of the open space.  For others, it’s their downtown, where one can park once and stroll along the main street, eying what’s for sale, meeting neighbors and friends by happenstance.  These two places, nature and the town, are the two pillars that make Marin great.  I love the above video because it captures both.  Yet, though we can safely lock nature away from development, we cannot do the same for our town centers.  Every decision of how we grow, and where we grow, makes our county better or worse.  Here is where we can make a greater Marin, or not, and that is why I started The Greater Marin.

Marin itself was raised on rail, with tiny bits of transit-oriented development blossoming into the towns we have today.  Though downtown San Anselmo is probably the best example, growing as it did from nothing, you can see pockets of it along Center, as you go towards Fairfax.  At the two old platforms that used to be Yolanda and Landsdale station, you can see little bits of commercial zoning amidst the housing.  Odds are, you live in transit-oriented development.

After the Golden Gate Bridge was built with the car, rather than the train, in mind, development in Marin exploded.  The freeway was built, bisecting San Rafael and pushing development north to Terra Linda and beyond.  Though we won out against any more freeways, one can best see the effects of car-oriented design in Terra Linda and Smith Ranch: large parking lots, wide streets, fast cars, and nowhere to walk to.  How many of us have walked from the Civic Center to Northgate, or the Century Theater in Smith Ranch to the strip mall down the street?  They’re not far from one another, but the design is antithetical to the kind of wonderful places that warm our hearts when we think of what makes Marin what it is.

I was born and raised in San Anselmo, and though I moved away to pursue school and a career after high school, my heart, not to mention my family, stayed behind.  One idiosyncrasy Marinites share with New Yorkers is the firmly held belief that our home is the greatest place to live in the country, if not the world.  Though I feel the truth in that, my exposure to other places like Vancouver and Washington, DC, showed me the pride and sense of place other cities feel.  They try to replicate the patterns of growth that created Marin’s centralized structure of small towns clustered around commercial centers, and it works.  The lessons learned by Vancouver and Washington when they try to become Marin can be applied back to Marin.

Yet when I went exploring for thinkers working to make Marin a better place, I found none.  The strongest movement that dealt with transit was RepealSMART, and the only debate of urban affairs was over affordable housing in Novato.

So I dove in, figuring that even my voice, however distant, was better than none at all.  This blog has a vision of Marin with strong, unique towns at its core.  The vision has three elements:

  1. Move away from the car.  Though the car will always be a large part of our low-density county, it needn’t be the principal means of transportation.  Marin’s geography lays our towns in thin strips, and good transit service can serve most of a town without much problem.  In addition, our towns are small enough and weather mild enough that bicycling for most of our trips is a real possibility, provided the infrastructure is there to make it as safe and inviting as hopping in the car.
  2. Focus development around town and transit centers.  What growth does occur, including affordable housing, should be put where it will strengthen town centers, or build new town centers, and strengthen local character.  Our downtowns are often marketed as on the brink of disaster.  Growing downtown means growing the customer base, and that means healthier retail and stronger communities.
  3. Keep Marin, Marin.  The explosive, sprawling growth of San Mateo and Contra Costa are antithetical to what Marin ought to be.  They built density with the car in mind, with large 20 story buildings, wide streets, massive parking lots, and little streetlife.  If we build with the person in mind, our two- or three-story height limits will keep the village character intact, and invite us to walk along what are now pedestrian the wastelands beyond our town centers.  Every new building, every zoning change, should be done with the person, and the streetscape, in mind.  European villages ooze character, and every part of Marin can do the same.

In short, I write with a vision for Marin that is person-oriented, not merely transit-oriented, and one that sees rampant car use as a threat to our county’s character.  I want Marin’s character to grow and strengthen.  We can rest on our necessary victories in the Great Freeway Rebellion and fight all change as an evil, or we can keep exploring how to make a great county greater.  I hope you’ll join the conversation.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

2 Responses to A Greater Marin

  1. Bill Carney, Sustainable San Rafael says:

    Right on. Thanks for your recent IJ Voice. Hope that you will turn this post into a subsequent IJ piece.

    • Thanks for the support! I’m still waiting to see if there are any Letters to the Editor on Tuesday complaining about this carpetbagger.

      I’ll try to get something more manageable than this into the IJ, perhaps something along the lines of what form-based zoning is, or the view that the car, not development, is the real threat to Marin’s character.

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