Viewpoints – Glenda Humiston: Linking urban & rural areas will drive California’s economic growth

150 150 Justin Ewers

Sierra Nevada forest (Photo Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr)

When some experts talk about California’s infrastructure challenge–the estimated $765 billion the state needs to spend over the next 10 years to meet the needs of a growing population–they tend to focus on the specific projects the state will need to invest in to make up for more than a decade of neglect, from local roads and public transit to K-12 schools and the state’s water systems.

But, Glenda Humiston, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s California state director for rural development, views the problem differently. “Too many people are submitting ideas about needing more policy or more programs,” says Humiston, a longtime champion of sustainable economic development. “But I think we need to look at the bigger picture.”

This bigger picture, according to Humiston, should involve a more comprehensive approach that would address one of the state’s perennial issues: The vast differences between its coastal urban regions and its even more expansive, but often overlooked, rural areas. In short, Humiston wants to see state leaders take on what many consider California’s next big budget challenge by adopting a strategy that incorporates both its urban and rural infrastructure–and, most importantly, ties the two together.

This is not a new idea: Variations on Humiston’s approach, called “working landscapes,” have been discussed for decades. What is new is this: By incorporating this approach into the state’s soon-to-be-released five-year infrastructure plan (expected later this summer), California could take an important first step toward tying together its urban and rural regional economies, developing a goods movement strategy that connects them–and best of all, do it in a way that’s good for the land.

Building bridges between regions

“Not a lot of thought has been given to how we’ll all benefit if we have better collaboration between our various regions,” says Humiston. “If we can understand the linkages better, if we can start looking for opportunities to build bridges between them, what it could do for the economy is potentially mind-blowing.”

There’s no time like the present, in Humiston’s view. In 16 regional forums hosted this spring by the California Economic Summit, “working landscapes” emerged in region after region as a popular idea, both in urban and rural areas. The Summit steering committee has made working landscapes one of its six Signature Initiatives for 2013, creating an action team that will spend the summer and fall exploring how these ideas could be applied to a range of state policy areas.

But Humiston believes the governor’s infrastructure plan, in particular, could provide a golden opportunity for the state to apply this concept right away to address one of its most pressing challenges.

“My career has been devoted to this question of how we create policies for sustainable agriculture, forestry, mining, fisheries, etc.,” says Humiston. By focusing on the mutual goal of landscapes that work, a range of different industries and state programs have created jobs in a way that’s also good for the environment, from prescribed burns in forests to reduce the risk of wildfires and increase biodiversity to promoting sustainable livestock grazing that improves habitat for endangered species.

Focusing on infrastructure

This multi-faceted approach, she believes, could do the same for infrastructure, by supporting both economic development and the environment–especially for far-flung areas of California’s economy that depend on food systems, bio-based products, and tourism.

Humiston is particularly enthusiastic about bringing this strategy to bear on the emerging “bio-economy”–which is to say, the emerging market of products built not with plastic, but from biological materials, such as compost. “There’s a lot of new opportunity out there that didn’t exist 5-10 years ago,” says Humiston. “We have 300 companies in California right now producing an amazing array of products, degreasers and office supplies and even pharmaceuticals.”

Humiston would like to see the state anticipate this potentially vital new source of rural economic activity by studying where these products are being manufactured, where the sources of biomass are, and how those two can be linked with consumers. “We have vast amounts of bio-mass in California–not just woody biomass out of forests and agriculture wastes from vines to almond shells,” says Humiston. “This is going to be a huge growth opportunity for rural areas.”

A growth area, not incidentally, that could produce a wave of well-paying jobs: Humiston points to a recent study by the California Centers of Excellence that found that 181,000 jobs could be created in the next five years along the “value chain” between the next generation of rural manufacturers and urban consumers. “These are good-paying jobs: Transportation, processing and handling, and a whole lot of support services like accountants and lawyers,” says Humiston.

Where the state comes in

That, she believes, is where the state–and its infrastructure plans–should come in.

“We’ve got some decent policy in place now. What’s needed isn’t policy. What’s needed is nuts and bolts: moving these goods,” says Humiston. “One of the things that’s going to be important is transportation, short-haul railroad links. Bio-mass by nature is large and bulky and heavy, and the cost of transportation it is one of the huge limiting factors. Rail is the cheapest solution.”

For the state’s transportation networks to be ready, these plans need to be made now. “At a minimum, as the governor’s infrastructure plan is moving forward, I think we need more focus on ensuring goods movement between regions–and tying that to future opportunities for local and regional manufacturing,” says Humiston. “The only thing that’s going to make that function well is a strategy that ties these areas together: We have to get the raw materials to manufacturers and get the final products to the consumer.”

Today’s infrastructure system, she believes, is not yet up to the task. “Right now it functions okay,” says Humiston. “But only for the 20th-century economy. I don’t think California has really thought about what that strategy should look like for the 21st-century economy.”

The time for this statewide thinking, Humiston believes, is now. And through the Economic Summit, she is prepared to lead the conversation.


Justin Ewers

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