City Housing, Transportation Policies Can Cut Carbon…Without Intending To
Cities across the United States are beginning to adopt housing and transportation policies that also end up reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change—even if carbon reductions are the farthest thing from their decision-makers’ minds.
“In most of these cases, the arguments in favour of the policies have been about economics and justice,” Wired reports. “But oh, hey, cool: They also save the planet.”
Like this story? Subscribe to The Energy Mix and never miss an edition of our free e-digest.
Deputy Editor Adam Rogers opens his feature report with Utah State Senator Jake Anderegg, whose constituents live in Salt Lake City and nearby Provo. “As in a lot of places in the U.S., housing in Anderegg’s district is growing scarce and more expensive,” Rogers writes. “So he’s pushing a proposal that would inject money into loans for constructing more housing, especially near transit corridors. It would also make it easier to build little behind-the-main-house houses, technically ‘accessory dwelling units.’ Denser cities and reductions in car use are both big factors in lowering emissions of greenhouse gases, so Anderegg’s proposal is pretty good if you care about such stuff.”
Except that Anderegg doesn’t particularly.
“No, actually,” he said. “I’m a conservative Republican from northern Utah County, and I won my last election by 96% of the vote. It’s not really something my constituents care about.” (Rogers clarifies that Anderegg actually won re-election to the Utah House with 82% of the vote in 2014, and was unopposed for his state senate seat in 2016.)
“Point is, Anderegg wants transit-oriented development because his constituents care about air quality and life quality,” Rogers writes. “If carbon should happen to get cut anyway? Hey, these things happen.” A common theme emerges from local initiatives in cities like Minneapolis, San Francisco, Austin, Texas, and Berkeley, California.
“One goal is to increase market-rate and low-income housing to make housing more affordable. Number two is ending exclusionary zoning,” said Senator Scott Wiener, incoming chair of California’s state Housing Committee, who’s introducing new legislation on transit and housing. “But number three is reducing carbon emissions from transportation. When we have hyper-low density zoning near job centres and public transit, we force people to commute long distances, and that undermines our climate goals.”
The details surrounding carbon reductions in denser cities “get more complicated the harder you squint at them,” Wired notes. “Broadly, denser cities tend to emit less carbon, but that can vary from zip code to zip code, even block to block, based on income level and a long list of other factors. It’s all supposed to put more housing on the market (reducing its cost), make neighbourhoods more walkable, connect housing to work and recreation, and reduce vehicle miles travelled.”
Climate and “Yes In My Back Yard” (YIMBY) advocates “acknowledge that carbon emissions aren’t always—or even often—top of mind for voters,” Wired notes. In one effort to end single-family residential zoning in Minneapolis, a city that scores near the bottom on racial equity, justice and climate went hand in hand.
“We tried very hard to show that the two things are interconnected, almost symbiotic in how they work from a planning and land use standpoint,” said the city’s director of long-range planning, Heather Worthington. “It’s primarily people of colour who’ve lived in impoverished areas that have suffered from disinvestment, and residents who are white who’ve had access to better schools, better transit, better retail.” Attaching both sets of problems to a common solution carried multiple benefits.
Still, “this all comes with risks,” Rogers notes. “Density changes neighbourhoods, and the people who live in them tend to like them the way they are.” And “density in practice has often meant gentrification, which usually involves wealthier, whiter people displacing poor people and people of colour from their homes.” Those problems can be addressed by including subsidized housing in new developments and placing limits on demolitions.
In some communities, talking about housing density “has had the side effect of separating climate hawks from chicken hawks,” he adds. “The city of Berkeley, for example—a bastion of [Democratic] blue so intense it’s nearly ultraviolet—recycles, doesn’t allow nuclear weapons, is working on ways to encourage electric car ownership, and has a solar-powered parking garage downtown. Yet some of the most divisive ongoing political fights involve opposition to the construction of housing, especially in the parking lots atop the city’s subway stations.”
“It can expose some of the hypocrisy of those who oppose density,” one interview contact told Rogers. “There are liberals or progressives who oppose climate change, but they definitely don’t want that multifamily apartment building to go up next to transit if it’s in their neighbourhood.”
In Utah, meanwhile, “I’ll be frank with you,” Anderegg said. “My district is changing. My district is the Silicon Slopes. We’re getting a lot of [San Francisco] Bay Area workers coming here, and they’re definitely concerned about emissions and whatnot.”
So while climate wasn’t Anderegg’s motivation for tabling a housing proposal or trying to electrify diesel commuter rail, “we’re very cognizant of the fact that if we don’t do something about emissions and reducing our impact on the environment, from the conservative side it has a deleterious effect on economic development, on the recruitment of a quality work force, because nobody wants to live in a cesspool of bad air.”