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Report: California’s Future: A Regional Analysis

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California’s Future: A Regional Analysis

California has long been a leader in innovation, social progress, and economic growth. For the past 150 years, people have flocked to California in search of wealth and prosperity. The state’s natural beauty, diverse geography, beautiful weather, and abundant resources allowed California to thrive from early in its history, both for adventure-seekers and entrepreneurs. Due to its size, California has boomed in population over the past century, and benefits from a diverse cultural history. In 2020, it boasted six of the 40 largest metropolitan areas in the United States in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, and San Jose.1 In fact, according to the U.S. Census, most of California’s population lives in urban areas—94.2 percent.

The purpose of this report is two-fold: 1) Given our focus on California, this report seeks to establish a baseline of performance metrics to identify, and attempt to quantify, where California is performing well and where it faces significant challenges, and 2) To identify states that serve as California’s primary competition for residents and businesses moving into the future.

This report compares California’s current policy landscape with other states, and highlights, when available, some of the changes that California should consider to secure the state’s social, environmental, and economic future. The report also includes a comparative analysis of California with other states, including Texas, New York, Washington, Florida, and Massachusetts, to identify areas where California can learn from the successes and challenges of these other states. Using this evidence base, the report examines California’s performance across policy domains, identifying key trends and emerging issues that could impact California’s future performance. It argues that California faces significant challenges in the coming years, including a high cost of living, increasing income inequality, and ongoing environmental and social challenges. Finally, the report also highlights the state’s many strengths, including a diverse economy, a commitment to innovation and sustainability, and a rich cultural heritage.

By leveraging these strengths and addressing its challenges, California can remain a leader in the nation and the world, and continue to provide opportunities for all residents to thrive.

California’s Future: A Regional Analysis Summary Report

California’s regions range from highly urban areas on the western side of the state—including the South Coast of Los Angeles and Orange Counties and the Bay Area of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose bordering the Pacific Ocean—to the highly rural, sparsely-populated, and mountainous Far North and Sierra in the northern and eastern parts of the state. In between—in terms of population density and to a large extent geographically—are the growing and increasingly urban, but still partly agricultural areas of the Sacramento Metro, the Inland Empire, and the Southern Border regions as well as the intensely productive agricultural regions with major cities such as the extraordinarily fertile San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast. Because these regions are so different, separate reports focus on the distinct factors – the “regional trends and drivers” – that affect each one.  This report provides a summary of how these drivers operate across the nine regions. 

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Bay Area Region Report

Almost 8 million people—roughly one-fifth of California’s total population—live in the nine Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma. The nine counties touch on the 60-mile-long San Francisco Bay, the 10-mile-wide San Pablo Bay, or the smaller Suisun Bay—all formed by the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers that together run over 800 miles along the length of California’s Central Valley, gathering water from Mt. Shasta and the Klamath, Sierra, and other mountain ranges. The region spans nearly 7,000 square miles–just 4 percent of California’s total land area. The region leads the nation in income, innovation, and information technology,  but it faces challenges from high housing costs and homelessness. 

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Central Coast Region Report

The Central Coast of California, also known as “the American Riviera,” boasts some of California’s most well known beaches and towns, from Santa Barbara to Big Sur and Monterey Bay. Spanning 15,000 square miles, the region makes up roughly 9 percent of California’s total area and about 6 percent of its population, or about 2.3 million people. Six counties comprise this region: Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Ventura. The region does not have any large cities like  other regions in California, and its population is spread out along the coast in small-to-medium-sized municipalities, with Oxnard as the largest city with a population of about 202,000 people. Because the Central Coast’s six counties run along the Pacific Ocean, it is particularly vulnerable to impacts from climate change, including rising sea levels, mudslides, drought and wildfires, and temperature change. The region has a mix of well-educated and high income residents working in education, aerospace, and tech, and many low-income less well-educated workers employed in agriculture, tourism, and retail—leading to significant economic inequality.   

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Far North Region Report

The Far North is the least populated region in California, home to about 1 million people, or less than 1 percent of the state’s total population. In spite of its relatively small population, the 16-county region comprises roughly 25 percent of California’s total land mass, much of which is federally-managed land. The Far North Region comprises Butte, Colusa, Del Norte, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Tehama, and Trinity counties. With its large area and small population, the Far North Region represents California’s frontier, but residents often report feeling neglected by the state’s leadership. With climate change and housing prices that may drive more people and agriculture into the region, and with the recent renaming of Humboldt State as Cal Poly Humboldt to support technological innovation, the Far North faces unique challenges and opportunities. 

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Inland Empire Region

Bounded by desert and mountain ranges, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties comprise the “Inland Empire.” Traveling due east from Los Angeles, the San Gabriel and then the San Bernardino Mountains form an imposing range of 10,000 foot mountains just to the north. The cities of this region, with histories of citrus-growing, include Ontario, Fontana, Redlands, and San Bernardino. Continuing east through the mountains is the Morongo Valley that leads to the Mojave Desert oasis at the city of Twentynine Palms. Traveling directly northeast from Los Angeles through the mountains leads to the high desert at Victorville, then through the Mojave Desert, and out to Needles at the border with Arizona and Nevada. Traveling southeast leads through Riverside, Moreno Valley, Banning, and eventually through the San Gorgonio/Banning pass to the desert cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, and Coachella ending at the Salton Sea. About 4.6 million people live in the two vast Inland Empire counties, roughly 16 percent of California’s total area and about 11 percent of its population. One of the few California regions that has grown significantly in the past decade, it faces economic challenges with a low per-capita income compared to the rest of the state, and a heavy reliance on low-income jobs in the logistics industry.

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Sacramento Metro Region Report

The Sacramento Metro Region is geographically diverse, falling squarely between the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east, the San Joaquin Valley to the south, the Bay Area to the west, and the Far North regions of California. El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba counties comprise the Sacramento Metro region. The region spans roughly 4 percent of California’s total land area with about 6,000 square miles and contains more than 2.5 million residents—about 6 percent of the state’s total population. The Sacramento Metro continues to grow in population, but it is heavily dependent upon government and must attract new forms of employment. As the region expands to accommodate new residents, it also increases the risks of wildfires burning through more densely populated areas.

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San Joaquin Valley Region Report

California’s geographic center is cut through by the San Joaquin Valley. The Valley is a large agricultural region drained by the San Joaquin River. The land surface of the Valley is shallow in most places and higher near its edges. The majority of the Valley is located close to sea level. The San Joaquin Valley comprises eight counties: from south to north:  Kern, Kings, Tulare, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin. About 4.3 million people live in the eight San Joaquin Valley counties, roughly 11 percent of California’s total area and about 11 percent of its population. Due to its heavy dependence on agriculture and oil production, the San Joaquin Valley faces challenges due to increasing water scarcity and rising temperatures throughout the state. The region also struggles with growing environmental health concerns, particularly in disadvantaged rural communities that receive limited public services.  

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Sierra Region Report

The Sierra Region is the least populated region in California with less than 1 percent of the state’s total population across seven counties: Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Inyo, Mariposa, Mono, and Tuolumne. However, it covers a significant amount of land throughout the most eastern side of the state reaching nearly 20,000 square miles. Much of this land is managed by the National Park Service (including Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley National Park), the United States Forest Service (including Sierra National Forest, Sequoia National Forest, Inyo National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest), and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (including Mono Lake). Heavily dependent upon tourism, the Sierra region must cope with growing housing costs, a fragile natural environment, and an economy reliant on seasonal employment. 

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South Coast Region Report

The South Coast Region is made up of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Spanning 4,800 square miles, the two-county region makes up roughly 3 percent of California’s total area, but it is home to more than one-third of the state’s total population: about 13.2 million people. The majority of these residents—10 million people—live in California’s largest county, Los Angeles (in roughly 4,000 sq. mi.), while Orange County is home to 3.2 million. Los Angeles and Orange Counties have developed strongly over the past two decades after falling behind the Bay Area because of the region’s decline in aerospace production during the late 20th century. The South Coast’s future depends upon continued innovation in a revitalized aerospace industry, the artful development of its globally important ports, and the creation of new innovative industries such as multimedia and digital entertainment.

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Southern Border Region Report

San Diego and Imperial Counties comprise the Southern Border Region which occupies California’s southern border with Mexico. Together, they make up more than 5 percent of California’s total land area, and are home to roughly 3.5 million people–nearly 9 percent of the state’s total population. Of this total population, however, about 95 percent reside in San Diego County, compared with just 5 percent in Imperial County, despite its greater share of land.   San Diego’s future is closely tied to its innovative communications and bio-medical industries and its close ties with manufacturing and workers who live across the border in Tijuana.  It provides a model for taking advantage of the opportunities from having a border with Mexico.   Imperial County faces severe reductions in water available from the Colorado River and an uncertain future for its agricultural industry and its workers.  

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