Could the San Joaquin River, long a dividing line in central California, unite a region in pursuit of a better future?
In Madera County, across the river from Fresno, a new unincorporated city of multiple planned communities is under construction. Within a generation, it seems likely to swell to more than 100,000 people. On the Fresno side, the county is developing open space, and the city of Clovis is expanding. Rising together, the new Madera town, Fresno, and Clovis could constitute a tri-cities area in central California.
If those three cities cohere into a stronger and wealthier region by mid-century — and that’s a big if — greater Fresno could transform into California’s answer to Austin, an inland metropolis capable of spreading the Golden State’s coastal prosperity to its dusty interior.
Of course, such a transformation would require extensive regional planning of the sort that Fresno’s leaders sometimes talk about, but rarely do. Such planning would include new regional governance bodies and funding for transportation, economic development, water, recreation, and air quality. And such structures would require collaboration among local governments accustomed to suing each other.
Unfortunately, the very structure of California, and its land-use planning, works against turning Fresno into a regional powerhouse. In our state, local jurisdictions are weak and have little power to raise their own revenues; so they must compete with other cities, often using questionable subsidies, in the chase for developments and the sales taxes they bring. The game is: support development that provides revenue for your city, while spreading the costs — in traffic, water, and air quality — onto your neighbors.
Madera and Fresno Counties, and Fresno city, have long used litigation to block each other’s development plans. But most of that litigation is over, offering an opportunity to build together.
Collaboration should include a more resilient water infrastructure (the new Madera developments tout their water efficiency), and tax-sharing to improve the river itself and create a truly regional transportation network. The area also needs to develop and recruit more local government officials who have deep training and experience in regional planning.
The new river city ought to inspire these efforts. After all, Madera, the county on Fresno’s northwestern flank, is saying via development that it doesn’t want to be small, poor and isolated anymore. That’s the same message all of greater Fresno must embrace.
Indeed, Madera County is pitching its new developments as a huge step forward for central California: master-planned communities with trails and schools and job centers and water recharge facilities wrapped in, providing the greater density and smaller lots of urban living. The signature project, now under construction, is Riverstone, with commercial space and 6,600 homes across six themed districts, along Highway 41. “Riverstone,” boasts one brochure, “will be a celebration of California living where people of every generation can enjoy the relaxed and informal spirit of the Golden State.”
Much could go wrong. If the new river city doesn’t produce promised jobs and inspire better transit, the expanded development could fuel sprawl, add to air pollution, and turn 41 — a favored route to Yosemite — into a traffic nightmare.
Successful regionalization will require outside help. The state’s climate change regime must prioritize infill development in central Fresno, so that the urban core isn’t weakened as people move to the new river city. Fresno also badly needs the momentum of high-speed rail (now under construction) to boost its downtown revival and to make it an affordable crossroads between the world-class economies of L.A. and the Bay Area.
And Fresno has a large population of undocumented immigrants who badly need legal status so they can advance themselves, and their region, economically.
You should not bet the farm on the grand project of turning greater Fresno into the next great region. But if Madera’s new development can inspire progress in that direction, the state would have reason to celebrate — and perhaps call the new river city Future Town, CA.