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California’s Future: A Regional Analysis

In a state with the hottest, driest, and lowest point in North America–Death Valley in the Mojave Desert, the highest point in the continental United States–Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and an 840-mile coastline along the Pacific Ocean with a Mediterranean climate, California encompasses distinctive regions with markedly different characteristics, histories, and challenges.

These regions range from highly urban areas 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 on the western side of the state, 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, we have produced separate reports on each one with a focus on the distinct factors – the “regional drivers” – that affect each one.

Each report focuses on regional drivers introduced below. The regions differ in their (1) technological innovation and educational institutions, their (2) economy and industry, their (3) climate and environment, and their (4) social and political issues.

The Bay Area leads the way for technology and innovation with the University of California and Stanford University, Lawrence Berkeley and Livermore National Laboratories, and Silicon Valley. The South Coast is also an innovative hub for trade, entertainment, and advanced technology with three great universities, UCLA, CalTech, and USC and two great ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Southern Border has innovative universities, such as UC San Diego, and a strong transnational and global identity linked to trade and manufacturing due to its proximity to Tijuana, Mexico. Other regions in the state have strong educational institutions that already produce innovation or could catalyze more in their regions. For example, moving from south to north, the Inland Empire with UC Riverside, the San Joaquin Valley with UC Merced and Cal State Fresno, the Central Coast with UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the Sacramento Metro with UC Davis, and the North Coast of the Far North region with the newly christened Cal Poly Humboldt. Some regions face difficult problems of developing innovative businesses and retaining or recruiting a highly-skilled workforce, such as the Far North and Inland Empire.

All regions must deal with economic challenges. The Bay Area faces growing income inequality and rising costs of living; the Central Coast maintains a heavy dependence on low-wage labor while the Inland Empire relies on the low-wage logistics and warehousing industry; the San Joaquin Valley must reckon with the uncertain future of its dominant agricultural industry due to water scarcity and temperature change while the Far North faces similar issues due to climate change; the Sacramento Metro must extend its industries beyond government employment; and the Southern Border similarly must grow and diversify its industries beyond its historic focus rooted in the military with an eye to the advantages provided by its proximity to Mexico. The Sierra region relies heavily upon tourism and part time residents that both support the region and create housing challenges.

The growing effects of climate change also have distinct impacts in each region. The Far North, Sierra, and Sacramento Metro regions experience increasingly severe wildfires; the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley suffer from air pollution due to heavy traffic, agricultural activity,  and their geographic positions to the east of large population centers with prevailing coastal winds that push pollution into basins created by mountain ranges. Water shortages are a threat throughout the state, but especially in the South Coast and Southern Border that depend upon water from the north and from the Colorado River. Similarly, the San Joaquin Valley depends upon irrigation and groundwater, which is being quickly depleted due to overuse.

Other social and political issues also challenge the regions. Housing problems affect all the major urban areas–the Bay Area and South Coast–and some of the more rural ones, including the eastern parts of the Sacramento Metro and the Sierra region. These problems include affordability and access to housing, which exacerbates issues of homelessness and often disproportionately affects people of color. Poverty, inequality, and segregation are especially problematic in agricultural and rural areas, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast, and Far North. Also vexing are political issues such as low levels of political participation in the Inland Empire, fragmented governance in the Bay Area, and political discontent in the Far North stemming from perceived neglect on the part of the rest of the state.