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Davis vs. Davos

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Davis vs. Davos

Unless you were living under a rock, you know that the World Economic Forum hit center stage in Davos, Switzerland last week....

6 Minutes Read

Unless you were living under a rock, you know that the World Economic Forum hit center stage in Davos, Switzerland last week. Seeking to tackle some of the thorniest issues of our time, let us pray that those at The Top of the Mountain attending the conclave high the in Alps “got it” and help us make the transition to the 4th Industrial Revolution as smooth as possible.

But in the bumper-sticker logic of commuters everywhere, how can we “Think Globally, (and) Act Locally”? How can to execute on the vision closer to home? What will it take for localities to start moving from knowing something needs to happen, to “making something happen”?

In my own back yard in Northern California, whether it’s driverless car prototypes, sidewalk scooters, robot restaurants, or billboards engaging in inscrutable network tool belt wars, you see the Signs of the Future everywhere. But what about humanity’s original “Industry 1.0” (farming), at a time when humanity has officially consumed more than the earth can produce?

The University of California at Davis is the premier agricultural school in the state. If you want to learn how to be a farmer, go to Davis. Want to be a vet? Go to Davis. Want to make wine? Go to Davis. Want to brew beer? Go to Davis.

While it would be a stretch in 2019 to say that Davis is in the “backyard” of Silicon Valley, it most certainly is a near-neighbor to Sacramento, the political power base of the state. Reams have been written about the tech boom in the Bay Area putting everything from housing prices, commutes, business locations, and homelessness into a unsustainable pressure cooker (imagine that: “Silicon Valley, the Place that Couldn’t Scale Itself”).

So what can Davis teach us about the future of work that our vaunted friends in Davos cannot?

Attending the recent Meeting of the Minds Annual Summit event for smart cities in Sacramento, Davis and its innovative approach to sustainable urban development took center stage. We learned how the city of Davis, in partnership with the university and Sacramento at large, has already become ground-zero as the “Farm to Table” capital of California, is spearheading the future of development, the future of urban planning that can co-exist with agriculture, and spearhead the future of food (something my colleague Desmond Dickerson will be writing more about this year – stay tuned!).

Experimental, innovative locations like The Cannery in Davis – California’s first farm-to-table new home community – are a testament to new approaches, where crops lay side-by-side with gleaming housing. While the Cannery is still grappling with soil degradation (from years of industrial use) to make good on its farm-to-table crops, it does offer a tangible vision for how intensive development can co-exist with adjacent thriving agriculture.

Davis itself has a strict policy on “buffer zones” between new development and surrounding farmlands, and the Cannery and its now-recovering soils and hedgerows show how this model can work. When I recently visited the new Apple Spaceship HQ in Cupertino, we heard how Steve Jobs lamented the wholesale destruction of the orchards that used to carpet the Santa Clara valley). In the City of Davis, existing acreages can’t be subdivided. Smartly, the University itself has also recently created Aggie Square, adjacent to the capitol building in downtown Sacramento, in order to more closely knit together the city, town & gown.

This all comes in the milieu of California, the Golden State, where boom (and bust) is always followed by the next boom. But sadly, in the post-war era, that boom has typically involved pillaging the land with wall-to-wall housing, replicating in-extremis the American suburban model originally birthed in Levittown, NY. Any plane ride over LA, the aforementioned Silicon Valley, or the eastern parts of Contra Costa – my home county – show this unsustainable pattern vividly. And that’s WITHOUT even starting a discussion of water. (Anyone watched “Chinatown” recently?...)

In short, Davis offers an innovative template that showcases how urban development of the tomorrow – smart development -- need not lay waste to some of the most productive farmland anywhere in the world. Coupled with the incipient arrival of technology-infused Smart Cities, that’s a win-win recipe for the future.

From a land-use perspective, it’s an idea that’s not new. Take the United Kingdom, a country of some 65 million people, squeezed into a land mass no bigger than the state of Oregon. Even a casual tourist driving the beautiful English countryside can see the benefit of the excellent green-belt policies hammered out in Great Britain in the wake of WWII. (But it took a while to grow into being a “Future of Food” mecca – a postwar observer of all that verdant countryside might have said “thank heaven they can’t cook it.” British cuisine – now among the world’s best – has come a long way from its melancholy period of being constantly lampooned a generation ago.)

When we think about the world’s population growth, feeding it, caring for it, and generally “making it work”, it seems right to gather at locations like Davos. But it’s also prudent to look further afield – sometimes in our own back yard – and identify where far, far smarter best practices for development and urban planning can be applied.

So watch the next 10-15 years: just as the last 10 years have seen the center of gravity of Silicon Valley move north into the heart of San Francisco itself, it’s likely the next decade will see it shift again, indefatigably eastward up the Interstate 80 corridor, and put it somewhere between Sacramento and the Bay Area (and we’re looking at you, Davis).


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