The San Joaquin Valley is one of the smoggiest air basins in the country, and planners there are encouraging community designs that help get people out of their cars.
But as Central Bureau Chief Sasha Khokha found on a visit to one popular new development, the ideal of "smart growth" -- densely-built areas near public transit, with sidewalks and bike lanes -- can be an elusive one in the Valley.
It's not hard to get Ken and Becky Lairson, and their neighbor Mary Nixon, to tell you what they like about their brand new homes: first, the backyards.
"It's just the patio," Becky says. "And we've mowed enough lawn in our lives," her husband chimes in. "We don't want to mow any more lawn. This is ideal for us," he says.
Then, there's the energy-saving air conditioners, controlled by two thermostats, one for each floor of the house.
And let's not forget the tankless water heaters. "Oh, I'm bragging about that to all my friends," Nixon says.
These houses at Harlan Ranch feature dozens of eco-friendly and high-tech amenities. This planned community east of Fresno is built around shared green space, with walking paths, playgrounds, a school and an amphitheatre for outdoor movies and concerts.
But life here still involves a lot of driving. The Lairson's full size Ford Expedition fills their garage. And Mary Nixon invites me just across the street to the Ranch clubhouse and pool.
"Even though it's not that much of a walk, let's just drive over there and we'll just get right into the pool area," Nixon says.
And that's part of the problem -- living in a "smart growth" community doesn't necessarily get you out of your car.
In fact, residents here pretty much have to drive everywhere: to work, the supermarket and the pharmacy.
Even if you were really committed to not using a car, it would be almost impossible to walk to the nearest grocery store. I tried. I walked nearly five miles in 90 degree heat to the nearest grocery store from Harlan Ranch.
On this day, there's no shade, and the sun's climbing higher. I'm just carrying my tape recorder. I can't imagine lugging groceries.
Harlan Ranch, as you may have guessed, is built on a former horse ranch. I pass orchards and pastures, birds chirping, crows cawing, walking along rural roads without much shoulder.
Once I've finally made it to the supermarket, I'm nearly out of breath. It's more than an hour and a half walk.
Back at Harlan Ranch, I catch up with developer Leo Wilson, who assures me plans are in the works for a shopping center as part of the development. But that could take more than a decade. Right now, he's focusing on the houses.
"We're standing in the middle of a project we're doing now that's 15 units per acre, calling Elev8tions," Wilson said.
That's 15 free-standing single family homes per acre of land -- more than double the goal regional smart-growth planners have set for the San Joaquin Valley.
These reasonably priced homes in Harlan Ranch are among the best-selling projects in the state.
Wilson balks at the idea that his high-density development 15 miles from downtown Fresno is contributing to urban sprawl.
"This here right now is a little oasis," he said. "Are we a little far out? Sure we're a little far out. If we weren't, we wouldn't be able to do this, because we couldn't afford to do it."
Bottom line: it's easier, and cheaper, for developers to negotiate permits, put down sewer lines, and get financing for projects built on undeveloped ground.
Achieving "Smart Growth" Creates Challenges in Rural Areas
Smart Growth advocates recognize there are problems when you build developments like this on the suburban fringe. Despite this, they've given Harlan Ranch awards.
Tony Boren heads the Fresno County Council of Governments, which helped develop the Valley's smart growth blueprint.
"Basically, it was sort of applauding these guys for doing the best they could."
"In a best case world, your job is around the corner from where you live," Boren continues.
"That's ideal, that's what they teach us in planning school. But when you get out in the world, you realize, wait a minute, that's not the way society has laid itself out."
And it's hard to compare the San Joaquin Valley, where there's still so much undeveloped land, to dense cities with better public transit and more robust job markets, like San Francisco.
While he applauds developers for trying smart growth in the Central Valley, Boren says they need to look at alternatives to paving over some of the nation's most productive farmland:
"Here we live this marvelous garden, really it's that simple. And we just keep sprawling out, and taking more and more bites of it. Once it's gone, you know, you can't get it back," he says.
The problem is, developers and bankers here see downtown smart-growth projects as risky and harder to sell. Shawn Kantor is an economist and a professor at the University of California, Merced. He's looked at the challenges of smart growth in the region, and what developers are prepared to build.
"They'll do it if it pencils out," Kantor says. "If the economics of it works for them, they're happy to build whatever people want to live in."
Here's the rub, though. Kantor says most people here don't want to live in condos downtown. But moving compact developments to rural areas is a different story.
And judging by the home sales at Harlan Ranch, it seems some Central Valley residents are happy with smaller houses and backyards. They're just not ready to give up their cars.
Funds for the production of this story were provided by Silicon Valley Community Foundation Envision Bay Area initiative. Learn more here.