By James Knight Travel Correspondent
Life in the year 2025, with all of its struggles, needs no introduction. Squeezed between $10 tomatoes and $50 commutes, trapped in sprawling suburbs, we plant our gardens and make do; the lucky few among us ship out for choice guest labor jobs in Europe, where they planned for the real 21st century when it showed up at the door.
But this gloomy landscape ignores the bright spots, the urban pockets that are thriving amid today's challenges. Naturally, the counties north of San Francisco enjoy a mild climate and a history of progressive politics, but luck and good intentions alone didn't save the North Bay from whipsaw crises that came sooner than anyone expected. In fact, it all started with a colossal piece of bad luck.
Fortunately, nobody was out shopping when the San Pablo quake struck early on the morning of Dec. 21, 2012, and the Santa Rosa Plaza collapsed in a heap of brick and concrete. The fortresslike mall was a relic of so-called urban renewal following a smaller earthquake in 1969, and even by 1970s standards, a stunningly short-sighted forfeiture of public space, blocking four streets and hogging twelve city blocks.
In an unprecedented reversal of civic apathy, when federal redevelopment funds arrived in 2014, the town revolted. A new crop of visionary leaders made it their first project to replace City Hall itself—a Brutalist-style structure that had folded like a house of cards—with an award-winning design that spans Santa Rosa Creek with graceful bridges. The creek actually had to be disinterred from the underground concrete sarcophagus to which it had been consigned by "old-school" urban renewal. This time, parking is underground, not the creek.
Planners then introduced aesthetic codes to ensure that new construction both reflected local, historical trends—like the craft of early 1900s Italian stonemasons—and makes use of green technology. Single-use office stock once made this a ghost town on weeknights; now businesses and housing are tiered in the same buildings. At street level, the town looks like a blast from the past—with a cool breeze from the trees of rooftops above. Mall rats still have a hangout, to be sure. Occupying one block, the Xi ming Group's Rose Garden Mall is powered by its jade-green skin of chlorovoltaic panels. With the decline of the internet retail model in the face of rising shipping costs, the prospects of downtown establishments are looking up.
Some even came back from the dead. The original California Theater was torn down 50 years ago for a parking garage. Resurrected on the same spot, this center for film and cultural events is owned by the city. "People said, 'But that's socialism!'" laughs artistic director Feven Aguilar, while sipping a gin fizz in the elegant lounge. "I said, 'Gosh, really?' But look around—it's one of the most social places in town."
Back in 2008, voters authorized funding for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, but the train was slow to leave the station. Support waned until the booming economy of the teens met its first oil crises, and SMART ridership took off. People still complained, of course, but this time the cries were different: "Why aren't there more trains running?"
Healdsburg contractor Hunter Dudacek, settling into a seat and unrolling his iScreen, admits he used to call it "the dumb train." But Dudacek works in Marin, and soon he was spending $75 a day on gas. "So I parked the truck in Marin, and I ride the train. And guess what? I'm saving $1,000 a month."
Meanwhile, tethered to San Francisco by a certain red bridge of renown, Marin County was wary. Original plans for Bay Area Rapid Transit to serve Marin had enjoyed popular support in the 1960s, but political wangling killed the proposal. Affluent residents might still be able to gas up their Rovers, but local business relied on commuters, so the county made a U-turn on SMART—and 10 years later, finally welcomed BART. In 2026, San Francisco's Geary Street subway will turn north to San Rafael, where SMART train riders can hop on for the ride back.
The one-time "Egg Basket of the World," Petaluma enjoyed a gentle slide into quaintness during the freeway age. Redevelopment around the turn of the century added a smart mix of housing and retail without completely gentrifying the riverfront; wine bars shared the street with light industry and feed stores, setting the scene for the day when river commerce again became an attractive alternative to crumbling roads and soaring fuel costs.
Next, Petaluma restored its old streetcar tracks and built out more to serve industrial and residential areas on the other side of the river. Following suit, Santa Rosa's first streetcar linked downtown with its college and hospital districts, and brings tourists to the restored Fountaingrove Winery's Thomas Lake Harris hospitality center; another ventured into the sprawling west side, after a squabble over which neighborhoods would get the trolley. Advocates for a third line east had it easier. Community opposition had already killed a planned freeway that would have blasted though Spring Lake, leaving a two-mile swath of greenway all the way to Howarth Park.
It's not all California sunshine here; summers, cushioned with fog in the morning and cooled with evening ocean breezes, are even more ideal for bicycling. But as late as 2010, for example, the Prius-driving, Earth-saving burg of Sebastopol had never bothered to stripe a single bike lane. However, it was connected with excellent multi-use paths, whose popularity inspired the building of a county-wide "super path" network on easements won from landowners through innovative incentives. Redundant, four-lane roads were re-striped or outfitted with curbs to separate car and bike traffic. Critics of such measures used to say, "But this isn't Europe," and they were right. The weather is a whole lot better here.
Spurred by high food prices, a new generation of young farmers has headed for the country. For some, high hopes have hit the ceiling of reality, while others hit pay dirt. Typical of this new generation of tech-savvy farmers, Lazy Cat Farm's Zac Strathmore posts the day's harvest to his subscribers, then drives an electric cart onto the flatbed of a special train that runs three times a week. Minutes later, Zac arrives at a "market district," set up year-round in one of Santa Rosa's reclaimed mall streets. The cart pops up into a produce stand complete with a solar shade that powers warm-colored LEDs to show his produce in the best light. As a result of these and other helpful programs, small farmers here have reliable incomes, in contrast to the anarchy of other would-be cornucopias.
In between "Wine Disneyland" and "Camp Napa," the intervening years were rocky for the prestigious Napa Valley. Wine sales enjoyed a boost from the high cost of beer, and of imported wine—thanks to the flat tariff imposed during the Franken administration, but things had changed since Napa passed strict laws that preserved the valley's rural character but also made it prohibitively expensive. Wineries were hamstrung, as the increasing parity of the dollar, more so than immigration reforms, left them bereft of their traditional migrant workforce.
So Napa recruited unemployed, wine-savvy millennials, with a special invitation to refugees from France's Blayais nuclear disaster, to a year-round work program affectionately termed "Camp Napa." Zoning was changed to accommodate compact "wine villages" along the rail corridor. Naturally, these new immigrants were hungry for world-famous Napa cuisine, and a surplus of talent and local produce made that possible. Formerly an exclusive restaurant, Etienne Rigolarde's cheekily named French Laundromat provides diners with gourmet meals prepared by French chefs for less than a trip to the grocery store—all while doing their laundry in the adjacent room!
In a valley where the waiting list was once for luxury wines, "Camp Napa" has a three-year wait to do the hard work of which people used to say "nobody else will do."
In the North Bay, the pipe dreams of the past have become pipelines to the future. Investments and smart planning transformed mere potential into well-connected, vibrant communities—amid the worst economy in 90 years. It's a great place to visit, and, yes, you'd want to live here. Better yet, it offers inspiration for the rest of us: "We did it here. You can, too."
Where to find the seeds of smarter living
By Leilani Clark, Jessica Dur, Gabe Meline, Shelby Pope and Mira Stauffacher
Regenerative Design Institute The Commonweal Gardens, a 17-acre farm at the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, is paradise on earth. Once a month, one can tour the graywater systems, production greenhouse, goats, "chicken palace" and cob and natural buildings that fortify the vibrant gardens. The institute offers foraging tours, wild tea crafting, permaculture training and "right livelihood" classes on re-skilling, teacher training and water issues. 451 Mesa Road, Bolinas. 415.868.9681.
Change of Greenery Electric Bicycle Rentals Want to tour wine country without the nasty carbon emissions of a car? An electric bicycle tour might be just the thing. Endorsed by Napa Valley Car Free, this two-year old company rents bikes by the hour and offers a series of self-guided tours through the valleys and vines of one of the area's most beautiful locales. Located inside the Napa Valley Marriot Hotel. 3425 Solano Ave., Napa. 707.596.0499.
Landpaths With its flagship urban farm project Bayer Farm in Roseland, Landpaths works hard to meet its mission of fostering a love of land in Sonoma County. The nonprofit offers sliding-scale tours of open spaces, farms and parks-in development, and partners with schools to get low-income kids into the great outdoors. 618 Fourth St., #217, Santa Rosa. 707.524.9318.
Daily Acts An ecotopia wouldn't be complete without urban food forests, busy bees, tasty fermented foods, thriving mushrooms, graywater systems and luscious, healthy gardens. Daily Acts, a Petaluma-based nonprofit, aims to build community self-reliance and mindful living through hands-on action. Tours and classes promote all of the above. P.O. Box 293, Petaluma. 707.789.9664.
Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve Located near the base of Sonoma Mountain, this 162-acre preserve is known for its variety and quantity of wildflowers. During the spring season, the Sonoma Ecology Center leads guided walks popular when flowers are in full bloom; the next one is Saturday, April 23. Reservations are required and space is limited. Grove Street, Sonoma. 707.996.0712.
Connolly Ranch A reminder of Napa Valley's agricultural history, this 12-acre ranch provides children in the community with hands-on experience in farm-based environmental programs. Its mission is to teach future farmers of tomorrow about the importance of sustainability and the value of nature through school-sponsored field trips. 3141 Browns Valley Road, Napa. 707.224.1894.
Napa's Earth Day Organized by the Environmental Coalition of Napa County, this year marks the 41st Anniversary of the annual Earth Day celebration. On Saturday, April 23, over a hundred booths will offer environmentally friendly products and tips on green living. Third and Main streets, Napa. 707.944.0799.
Sonoma Mountain Village With its sprawling suburbia and big-box friendliness, Rohnert Park hardly seems like a spot for a sustainable utopia. Yet the Sonoma Mountain Village project aims to be just that: a solar-powered, zero-waste, mixed-use planned community centered around a "five-minute lifestyle" with a myriad of food, entertainment and housing options all a five-minute walk from the town square. 1400 Valley House Drive, Rohnert Park. 707.795.3550.
Laguna Farms One of the undisputed mack-daddies of local farms, Laguna Farm spreads out over 30 acres adjacent to Northern California's largest freshwater marsh. Their CSA program provides weekly boxes of fresh seasonal produce, and the farm is home to the Sonoma County Herb Exchange, a clearinghouse for locally and ecologically grown herbs, as well as the Earth Camp Collective, a summer program that teaches kids how to grow food and friendships. 1764 Cooper Road, Sebastopol. 707.823.0823.
Green Valley Village On the site of an ancient Pomo village in rural Sebastopol sprawls this intentional community of 330 acres of forest and farmland. GVV hosts workshops, sweat lodges, full moon fires, yoga classes, a CSA program and a free school that's open to the community. Join them on the second Sunday of the month for an open house/potluck, or at 10 am on Saturday for the weekly work party to get an inside peek at the goats, cow, chickens and creative thinkers who call this place home. 13024 Green Valley Road, Sebastopol. 707.569.6912.
Pepperwood Preserve Sure, Pepperwood Preserve is beautiful, with stunning views of Sonoma County populated by over 650 types of plants, but there's much more to this 3,000-acre preserve. As one of the largest scientific preserves in Northern California, Pepperwood makes it their goal to educate the community, be it through school tours, community stargazing or opening its fields to SRJC biology students. 3450 Franz Valley Road, Santa Rosa. 707.591.9310.
Redwood Empire Farm Community supported agriculture programs have taken off, with more and more people picking up their weekly box of veggies at local farms. Redwood Empire Farm helps bring the food to you, with pick-up locations ranging from its Rincon Valley location in Santa Rosa to Three Dog Yoga Studio in Fountaingrove and Fleet Feet Sports in Railroad Square. Tours of the farm's grounds, chickens and goats occur periodically in this pocket of county land amid city limits. 55 Middle Rincon Road, Santa Rosa. 707.953.6150.
EcoOdyssey A one-week, 100-mile journey from Geyserville to Novato takes participants via bicycle, kayak, train and foot through a veritable what's-what of eco-friendly living in the North Bay. Stops include Bayer Farm in Santa Rosa, Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park, Steamer Park in Petaluma and Roseland's Cinco de Mayo celebration. Along the way, talks from mayors, authors, community organizers and railroad authorities illuminate the region's sustainability. Essentially, EcoOdyssey is the dream trip that all resident tourists wish they had the time to embark upon. For reservations and information, visit www.ecoodyssey.info or call LandPaths at 707.544.7284.