The Bay Area's identity is largely defined by its stunning parks, open spaces, and natural landscapes—particularly the San Francisco Bay and Estuary. Those of us who live here can explore the bay, ocean, forests, hillsides, and farmland—often in a single day. These natural resources are vital to the Bay Area's quality of life, robust economy, and sustainability. The Estuary supplies water for drinking and irrigation, provides habitat for fish and wildlife, supports migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway, and protects against flooding and sea level rise.
The produce, meats, and dairy produced locally on the region's thousands of acres of farms and ranches contribute to the economy and make the region more sustainable and resilient. Open spaces and natural areas shape our communities and provide scenic vistas, diverse habitats for native plants and animals, and recreation opportunities. Parks and trails provide space to enjoy nature, connect with neighbors, and get out and play and are cherished as part of what makes a community a great place to live.
In recognition of the fact that open space land is a limited and valuable resource that should be conserved whenever possible, every community is required to plan for how it will preserve these lands while accommodating future population growth. As of 2010, only about 18 percent of the region's approximately 4.4 million acres were developed. The remaining undeveloped area includes open space and agricultural lands as well as water bodies (excluding the San Francisco Bay) and parks. Comparatively, 28 percent of the region is identified as protected open space.9 The Bay Area has been remarkably successful in preserving its iconic landscapes and, with this record of leadership in environmental stewardship, it is almost impossible to imagine that there once was a plan to fill in the Bay.
There are still important natural assets in the region that are under threat of development, and we should continue to look for opportunities to preserve them. However, Bay Area residents, environmental leaders, and other stakeholders have begun to develop an expanded vision of environmental stewardship. There is a growing understanding that restricting areas from development is not enough to truly protect our environment. The Bay Area's population is expected to continue to grow—in part because people are drawn to the region for its beautiful landscapes and quality of life. Embracing new growth that is more focused and efficient helps protect open spaces and agricultural lands from being converted to urban uses and is essential to our ability to protect the natural assets we love. There is also growing recognition that preserving and restoring natural resources, particularly tidal marshes, supports the health of the Estuary while also protecting communities from flooding from sea level rise.
The inclusion of both PCAs and PDAs in Plan Bay Area 2013 reflects the integral relationship between resource protection and more compact growth. In 2015, the PCA program was updated to recognize the role of different kinds of PCAs in supporting the vitality of the region's natural systems, rural economy, and human health. The four categories used to classify PCAs are natural landscapes, agricultural lands, urban greening, and regional recreation. These designations highlight the ways in which PCAs and natural areas relate to developed areas for the region as a whole and for local communities. In recognition of the importance of PCAs, Plan Bay Area 2013 dedicated $10 million from the first cycle of the OBAG program to fund projects to construct trails and access improvements, acquire land for parks, and plan new parks.
At the local level, more communities are considering how to better integrate open spaces, trails, and parks into developed areas. The Bay Area's trail systems connect communities, function as alternative commute corridors, and promote health by enabling residents to get outside and play. Access to parks and playgrounds, as well as open spaces, are essential components of a complete community and contribute greatly to residents' quality of life. However, many local communities are struggling with how to find space and funding to provide additional parks as more residents and workers are added to existing neighborhoods. Additional funding sources are needed to pay the capital and maintenance costs for both new and existing parks. Finally, since many people are choosing to drive less and own fewer cars, it is important to consider strategies to increase access to parks and natural areas by public transit.
ABAG partners with local governments, the State Coastal Conservancy, open space districts, and other stakeholders to advance the region's conservation priorities through the PCA program, and will continue to work collaboratively to promote protection of these areas. This includes advocating for additional funding through OBAG and other sources to improve trails, increase access, and protect critical areas. ABAG's SFEP is a coalition of resource agencies, non-profits, citizens, and scientists working together to restore wetlands and wildlife habitat, reduce pollution and improve water quality in and around the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary. ABAG will also continue its efforts to implement the Bay Trail and Water Trail. Both of these trail systems seek to enhance the quality, diversity, and accessibility of opportunities for outdoor recreation around the Bay.
Despite the Bay Area's success in protecting open space, retaining our natural assets remains a long-term challenge. The region's diverse ecosystem depends on a network of open spaces extending from the hills to the Bay, in some cases traveling through urban areas. The PCA program and Estuary Partnership provide a framework for continued coordination to preserve these assets. We should also take steps to protect the farmland that is crucial to the region's economy and quality of life.
Advocate for protection of Priority Conservation Areas: ABAG will continue to partner with local governments, the State Coastal Conservancy, open space districts, and other stakeholders to support local efforts to protect the full range of designated PCAs. Our success will largely depend on identifying funding to purchase land or obtain easements to protect these areas or to create new parks or trails. Our efforts to identify our regional priorities for conservation, including the designation and benefits of each PCA, should help make the case for additional funding and facilitate decision-making once funds are identified. ABAG will continue to support funding tailored to different parts of the region through the OBAG Program and will coordinate with local jurisdictions to seek additional funding opportunities for PCAs.
Enhance the region's agricultural economy and preserve its agricultural lands: Nearly two-thirds of the 3.6 million acres of open space that surround our cities and towns are agricultural lands10. The region's farmland—characterized by fertile soils, mild climate, adequate water supply, and proximity to population centers—is limited. Over the past decades, strong developmental pressures and sharp increases in land values at the edges of urbanizing areas have resulted in the large-scale conversion of agricultural land to urban uses. Agricultural landowners are incentivized to sell their land because of the challenges of staying in business, which include the high land prices that make it difficult to consolidate profitable farming operations, inadequate infrastructure for processing and distributing their products, and difficulty obtaining financing to improve their operations. Local communities should consider land use policies that contain urban growth and prevent subdivision of agricultural lands. We should also explore ways to support farming and ranching in the region and consider the ways in which infrastructure investments can be used to help farmers get their products to market.
Protect, restore, and enhance the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary ecosystem: At 1,600 square miles, the San Francisco Estuary is the largest on the West Coast and drains over 40 percent of California's land area. The Estuary provides water for drinking and irrigating farmland, sustains fish that we eat, and supports significant wildlife and migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Given the importance of the Estuary to our region, we should be proactive in ensuring it is prepared to handle the expected effects of climate change, including sea level rise. Strategies include ensuring adequate freshwater flow into the estuary to protect and sustain all the beneficial uses of the estuary, creating new wetlands, and improving the health of existing wetlands and riparian corridors. The SFEP has conducted research about the effects of climate change on the ecology of the Estuary, but more data is needed to inform efforts to adaptively manage the health of our waterways. Increasing active partnerships in the region is a key strategy for improving water quality and habitat health within key watersheds, from headwaters to tidal waters. Actions to improve water quality should focus on pollution prevention and expanding the use of green infrastructure projects that decrease stormwater runoff, improve water quality and aesthetics, and provide wildlife habitat and opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Whether we visit them infrequently or every day, the Bay Area's trails and parks are critical to residents' quality of life. Open spaces provide a chance to connect with nature or find refuge from the challenges and stresses of everyday life. The neighborhood park or playground offers a chance for the kids to run and play and opportunities to connect with family or neighbors. Trails in the Bay Area allow access to the region's spectacular natural landscapes, connect communities, provide recreational opportunities, and promote health by enabling residents to get outside and be active. In recognition of the vital ways these assets contribute to the health and beauty of our communities, we must identify additional funding for maintaining existing parks; building new ones in underserved areas; and increasing connections among the region's parks and trails, including the many sub-regional trail systems.
Complete the unfinished segments of the Bay Trail and Ridge Trail and expand the Water Trail: The Bay Area's regional trail systems—the Bay Trail, Water Trail, and Bay Area Ridge Trail—complement one another, with the Bay Trail circling the Bay at the shoreline, the Ridge Trail circling it along the ridgelines, and the Water Trail offering opportunities to be on the Bay itself. Both the Bay Trail and Ridge Trail have completed more than half of their loops around the Bay, while the recently established Water Trail has 11 designated sites. Completing these trails will require the continued collaboration among regional agencies, park districts, and local governments that has been essential to successful implementation of the trails to date. It will be critical to identify additional funding sources to provide the public improvements that will close the gaps in these trail systems.
Increase access to parks: Statewide, the demand for local parks is eight times greater than the amount of available funding, with particularly high demand in urban, disadvantaged communities.11 This lack of access limits residents' ability to experience the outdoors, improve their physical and emotional health, exercise, and connect with their communities. Continued investment in parks, natural resources, and greening urban areas will mitigate the effects of climate change, making cities more livable, and protecting the region's natural resources for future generations. ABAG will work with state and regional partners to promote increased funding for parks. While expanding the region's trail networks can improve the accessibility of the region's parks and open spaces, we must also take additional steps to make these areas—some of which are remote from developed areas—more accessible to residents who do not have access to a car. Local communities, park districts, public transit agencies, and other stakeholders should consider strategies to increase transit connections to parks and natural areas.