Alf Heller

Building from the Ground Up

Recorded: May 8, 2012

What would California look like today if the state had continued to grow without implementing comprehensive planning? Alf speaks about his origins in the environmental field and why he created the citizens group California Tomorrow.

Alf Heller began his career as a newspaper publisher, but pursuing his civic interests led him to strategic planning, a field in which he became internationally recognized. During the 1950’s, when Mr. Heller was the publisher of the Nevada County Nugget, he mobilized his community after learning that the California Department of Transportation was planning to bisect his community of Nevada City with a freeway. After a brutal fight, the activists were unable to stop the freeway but succeeded in minimizing its footprint and its overall impact on the community.

Finding that community participation is the backbone of planning, Mr. Heller then focused his work on the critical need for statewide conservation and development plans to guide development. By 1961, Mr. Heller had formed a nonprofit citizen’s group called California Tomorrow that called attention to the urgent need for comprehensive planning. Its California Tomorrow Plan received national and international attention for its vision of linking long range planning to a healthy environment. Today, long range plans are commonplace and Mr. Heller’s early venture illustrates how pro-active planning is fundamental to leadership and governance.

Mr. Heller serves on the board of several nonprofit organizations including the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation and the Resource Renewal Institute. He is editor and publisher of the book World’s Fair.

Alf Heller: This was in the 1950’s, late 50’s and the war was over, California was developing like crazy. Subdivisions were occurring outside of cities. They were occurring on valuable agricultural land. They were incurring without any thought of infrastructure. They would be approved and then somebody would have to put in sewer systems, water and roads. The state was being uglified by this tremendous growth that was going on and it affected urban areas, freeways would be run right through the center of neighborhoods without a thought to displacing people and they did displace people. Nobody was thinking about the consequences of growth, honestly nobody.

So we put together an organization dedicated to a productive and beautiful California and decided that our first project would be to publish a book, small book, kind of a track, diatribe about what was happening to the state and what needed to be done in general terms to cure, rectify the situation. And the heart of it would be a state wide conservation and development plan.

After that, we felt that there were, we needed to create a permanent continuing publication so we put out, and we began to put out a quarterly magazine, Cry California. And Cry California would have a considerable following, but in due course, the issue always became when we were advocating state planning. And the planning, our friends the planners would always say, “California is too big, for – to have a state plan.”

And so decided what we would do is show them how it could be done. So that was the genesis of what became the California Tomorrow Plan, which was a publication that came out 10 years after California Going Going. And the California Tomorrow Plan was the, our idea of how the state might be modestly ordered and reorganized to accommodate the needs for more coordinated planning and more respect for the environment. And we didn’t claim that this was the only way things could be done, we just said “this is our plan, are you making a better one?”

The state was in a tremendous growth spurt and it was almost as if nobody had said “hey, wait a minute, look what we’re doing.” I think it also says in this comparison of the fascinating look at your ability to take, tackle a big picture, the impossible dream, a scale of a plan for California, and for the nation for that matter, and still the idea, the principled individual willing to and courageous enough to defend integrity at the lower individual levels, that if you’re principled enough and stand by what you believe, its going to be very helpful to you career-wise. It may not always be successful but it’s been in that case, where the rubber hits the road, you know, where you have to decide if you’re going to propose something to the point of personal embarrassment, that is often of greater concern to people than physical harm. I think we agree on that.

Huey Johnson: Yeah.