Maybe density hawks should look in the mirror a little when it comes to our mess of a climate policy

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: I am an old lady and have been in the universe of “hey, let’s curb car use for the environment” for roughly 30 years of my professional life. The city shaping strategies embraced among planners, designers and urbanists are an important way forward. But these strategies are also slow and incremental compared to immediate interventions like carbon taxes or, analogously, a price floor on fuels like gasoline. By being so loud about city shaping, and so quiet about more draconian and immediate measures like price floors on gasoline or gas taxes, city shapers have their own dirty hands when it comes to undermining action on climate change–that is, by offering policy-makers what seemed an easy-out means to shift policy action onto cities instead of on federal and state government. City shaping became a policy means to look like we were doing something when really, we were moving slowly. So while David Roberts and other urbanists want to yell at individual homeowners as selfish NIMBYs endangering the planet, they might want to take a minute to reflect how they, themselves, have contributed to the climate policy mess we live in–and to change their advocacy accordingly.

Brilliant student and friend Shane Phillips (whose blog you should be reading if you are not) shared via Fboo this piece from David Roberts at Vox , in which Roberts does a take down of Leonardo DiCaprio as a phoney-baloney climate hawk because DiCaprio supposedly endorsed the dreaded Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (learn more about it here, and because I am too lazy to do more linking, do a Google search to find the myriad criticisms out there of it; there’s plenty.) It turns out, DiCaprio had not endorsed the measure. Instead, DiCaprio appears to have had endorsed the idea of preservation in general, as do many people, including yours truly. Roberts had to caveat the statements about DiCaprio but left up his language about how people who oppose infill growth are climate deniers:

But if you live in a vibrant, growing area that’s creating jobs, where people want to move and live, and you are fighting that growth by advocating for policies that constrain it — because you love your view and your on-street parking, because of the “character of the neighborhood,” because you don’t want “those people” coming to your neighborhood on transit, because you’ve lucked into suburban idyll with all the urban amenities, because your home value rises the more housing supply constricts, because you’ve been led to believe that capping housing supply counteracts rather than accelerates gentrification — then no, sorry, you are not a climate hawk. You might even be some kind of, I don’t know, denier


Yeah, those homeowners are some bad people. It’s all about protecting their on-street parking and views, not about protecting the single major asset they own in hopes they won’t have to eat cat food during their retirement or give their kids a start in life. Selfish bastards. THEY are the ones keeping the backbone of America–the working class–living on the urban fringe, not corporate development that, when granted infill approvals, plunks down one luxury tower with insanely high building association fees after another and who, when given density bonuses up the wazoo, flounce around like they are living in A SOCIALIST NIGHTMARE if they are asked to provide a little low-income housing. Those guys there? They are just optimizing their value and profits. That’s teh Market. Just developers doing what Business Mens do. But individual homeowners who optimize on their assets? They are the worst.

(Ever notice that you don’t generally see big developers necessarily advocating for broad land use changes, despite being packed on many a city council and zoning board? Instead, they seek variances for their own individual projects. That’s because they, too, get a nice rent boost from the constrained housing supply when their projects luck into variances and other developers are kept out. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if we are going to yell at homeowners for gaming the system, we should probably note there is plenty of sauce to go around when it comes to urban players not sacrificing their own financial best interests for “society” or “the environment.”)

I’ve written before about my impatience with this way of framing homeowners as the villains here. On the one hand, movements need true believers like Roberts to advocate for change. If it hadn’t been for shrill public health people banging on about the evils of smoking, I doubt we would have had the culture shift to much healthier lifestyles we did around smoking. That’s all good. On the other hand, cities and smoking are not terribly analogous, and I think we’ve more than hit a strong backlash against changing urban neighborhoods, not to mention the very, very successful backlash on climate policy. I suppose powering through that with strong advocacy might work.

But people are smart, and they can see through thin justifications pretty fast. Oh, so your downtown luxury tower is saving the planet, taking cars off the road, is it? Why does it have seven floors of parking, then? And so on, and so forth.

For all Roberts’ confidence and general soundness, he contributes to this sort of thing by saying misleading things in his desire to be emphatic and produce Vox-style prose:

All the biggest, fastest ways to reduce carbon emissions are on the demand side; switching out supply for cleaner options, whether it’s solar power plants or electric cars, always takes longer. And there is no demand-side solution more potent than density.

To borrow a phrase from Donald Trump, wrong. This is wrong in a whole host of ways, depending on what he means by “potent.” Yes, absolutely, every urban model we have shows that density could yield us big emissions reductions. But those big gains are likely long-term gains, and there are plenty of short-term, broad-based demand-side strategies that promise to be both potent and immediate, like carbon taxation and its variants. Roberts writes about these and knows full well they are a big deal. He writes about carbon taxes beautifully in this other Vox piece. But in his desire to scold density limiters, he doesn’t mention the imperative of those immediate, short-term demandside policies. And that failure is a big problem, particularly when he is claiming that the best thing we can do is densify.

Why? Because changing urban form is at best a medium-term and at worst a long-term intervention, and time matters in climate solutions. And as we tell ourselves that “density will save us”, we are not doing some of those short-term demand reduction strategies, many of which could be damn potent if we put some teeth into them, that would get us well on our way to saving ourselves while we try to get infill development to amount to a hill of beans in the density and emissions-reductions department.

Density is not just a demand-side solution, as Roberts implies. Density is a supply variable, too (just about every variable in this type of construct has a dual). So Roberts simultaneously is bemoaning our inabilty to supply density “because politics” at the same time he tells us that density is the most potent demand-side reductions strategy for fuel use. So he’s stuck; are we really going to buy the idea that reshaping existing US metro regions will take less time to amount to sizable climate emissions reductions than fleet turnover? I have trouble with that assumption.

Yes, we would be able to make big gains in carbon emissions if we densified people off the road and into smaller housing units. The issue with climate emissions is not just how far you drive. We’d love to reduce driving for a million reasons besides emissions: crash deaths, time lost, etc etc. Fuel economy would be a great way to change the amount of emissions–carbon emitted is a very predictable function of fuel consumed. We could be improving fuel economy immediately even with revenue neutral price floors on gasoline (tax gas at a high level, give tax payers back their payments at tax-time. An imperfect solution for low-income drivers, but still workable, just as with the considerations to impoverished residents granted under Washington’s 732 carbon tax.)

Even with a revenue neutral price floor on gasoline, you have people immediately doing exactly what you want them doing while we are waiting for cities reshape: 1) think about whether it’s worth the cost to take the car out of the garage, and 2) choose more fuel efficiency at the time of car purchase. The US fleet is shamefully inefficient granted our wealth and technological capabilities, and while it takes time for a fleet to turn, we can get people to use their cars more efficiently and more thriftily now. (BTW, Obama was right: keep your damn tires properly inflated, for Lord’s sake.)

Again, short-term demand-side policies are not substitutes for city shaping policies. But neither are city-shaping policies substitutes for short-term regulation.

So what? It’s not like Roberts is against carbon taxes. Nope, but by falling into the trap of single-issue focus in his post here, he supplies the “density, density over all” narrative that has enabled the policy cherry-picking which has led us to where we are: we have many, many state and federal programs that give a strong thumb’s up (or in the case of California, legal requirements) that cities should reshape themselves, while short-term policies to use less gasoline…never happen. I have watched one federal administration come and go, making a big dealio about city re-shaping policies…with utter silence on Pigouvian gasoline taxes. With candidates running on gas tax holidays, no less. SWEET CRACKER SANDWICH. President Obama became my hero when he stood up to that nonsense for the terrible idea that it is.

Oh, but you say, the gasoline tax is a political nonstarter! Whereas we can make real gains with infill development because it’s so awesome.

The reason why gasoline taxes or price floors are politically contentious is that people would *feel them*. The reason why, for years, infill development and city reshaping policies were not politically hard is that many people didn’t really think it would involve them at all. Opponents to Agenda 21 were easily dismissed as cranks. Somebody else would live in an apartment somewhere else and take transit, and I could keep doing what I am doing. Whereas…raising gas prices means I, personally, have to start thinking now about my choices and perhaps sacrificing something I like.

With all our dialogues about how “seniors will want density” and “Milennials want density” and “OMG there is a yuuuuuuuuuge market for walkable bikable livable thisable thatable urban nabes!” we’ve created a narrative that suggests that those *other* people will save us with their natural-born preferences instead of the rest of us *also* having to leave the car in the garage to stay at home and read a book instead of drive here and there whenever we feel like it without thinking about the costs of that decision. We density advocates have been quick and ready to condemn “technology will save us” thinking as a wishful distraction; we have never had the self-reflection to think our own marketing and branding for density could have a similar wishful thinking aspect to them when it came to letting people cherrypick approaches that delayed and deferred action “until later” and “not in my backyard” rather than going for immediate, broad-based changes.

In other words, we have relied politically on people’s supposition density wouldn’t happen in their backyards to push our policy agenda further than we might have gotten with broad-based fights over penalizing fuel use…and now are surprised that that NIMBYism rears its head once the density agenda moves from abstract concepts to real-world implementation?

What the NII should teach us is that the days of assuming that infill development is politically easy are well and truly over. By being unwilling or unpredictable allies in the fight for gas taxes or carbon taxes, density advocates chose the political battles that the NII and local opposition everywhere now manifests. But infill projects in action bring home the sacrifices that infill entails: the loss of parking, the loss of views, the changing neighborhoods, etc etc. And people will find ways to fight what they don’t like. It’s the nature of democratic politics.