IIn San Francisco’s Sunset District, rows and rows of pastel-colored two-story homes flow from the edge of Golden Gate Park to the sand dunes of Ocean Beach. Many homes here have solar panels on their roofs and compost bins in their driveways, flanked by hybrid and electric cars.
Yet here – and throughout this city – a major solution to both the housing crisis and the climate crisis has met fierce resistance: build more.
Climate scientists and city planners are increasingly suggesting that one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to densify cities. This change, the scientists calculated, is even more impactful than installing solar panels on all new constructions or renovation old buildings with energy saving technologies. Residents of cities like San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Minneapolis already have a much smaller carbon footprint than the surrounding urban sprawl. City dwellers tend to have smaller apartments that require less energy to heat and cool.
But it also means that a certain American way of life may have to come to an end.
The quiet, tree-lined Sunset District is rife with controversy over building affordable seven-story housing. During tense community meetings, residents complain that the construction would block sunlight, increase congestion and create toxic dust. “Not in my garden” protesters clashed in protests with progressive “Yes in my garden” counter-protesters outside the proposed site. It came to a head earlier this year when anonymous leaflets appeared in neighbors’ mailboxes, accusing: “No slums at sunset”.
“It got ugly,” said Laura Foote, executive director of Yimby Action, a San Francisco-based housing advocacy group. Although the Sunset project was ultimately approved, she said similar battles for additional housing construction were being fought across the city – and the country.
American city densification efforts are also complicated by other offsetting trends, with population growth in urban cores. declining in recent years as people search for cheap spaces and now, in the wake of the pandemic, more suitable places to work remotely, for those who are able to do so.
“A lot of cities are worried about affordable housing and gentrification, so these issues need to be addressed very carefully,” said Christopher Jones, climate policy expert at the University of California at Berkeley. “Also, if you build more density in the urban core, it could translate into more sprawl with growth, people wanting bigger, cheaper homes and then going to these vibrant new centers. It’s a bit like pouring sand on a map – it will keep overflowing.
Dbringing more people to cities could help significantly reduce the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Low density product developments nearly four times the greenhouse gas emissions of high density alternatives, with research discovery that doubling urban density can cut carbon pollution from household travel by almost half and residential energy use by more than a third.
But compared to most European cities, urban areas in the United States are generally sprawling and heavily car-dependent – with just 283 people per square mile, the average American city is more than 100 times less densely populated than metropolises like Paris or Barcelona.
As the tentacles of the suburbs stretch outward from an urban core, public transport and even sidewalks often do not follow and so more and more people are dependent on their cars, larger SUVs and more. pollutants becoming more and more popular. Research has shown that people living in walkable neighborhoods, unsurprisingly, drive a quarter less than those in larger areas.
Failure to own a car at a time of escalating climate crisis has also led to the rise of yimbyism in some progressive cities, around a vision of crowded apartments near public transport poles and amenities. Meanwhile, the temporary closure of some streets to cars during the Covid pandemic has multiplied the calls so that more space is given to pedestrians, cyclists and rollerbladers, rather than vehicles, in a more permanent way.
Nationally, Joe Biden called for a “historic investment” in affordable housing, with his administration urging cities altering zoning laws to increase density and limit single-family housing developments, as well as tear up highways that have separated communities, usually communities of color, and added to air pollution.
But Jones said most of the suburbs in the United States are “beyond all hope” for public transportation and that the focus should instead be on a “middle ground”, where single-family plots close to centers -cities are divided to accommodate additional residences, urban limits to growth are put in place and jobs and services are distributed more evenly across cities.
“Downtowns have jobs, stores and schools, places people want to go, but you have to have multiple cores, rather than just one,” he said. “Getting everyone into one hub is not efficient. You need many different hubs and spokes in the wheel that connects them.
SSome states and cities have started to overhaul their zoning laws to build duplexes and apartments in areas once reserved for single-family homes. In 2018, Minneapolis became the first major city in the United States to end single-family zoning. In 2019, Oregon did the same, allowing the construction of duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes on plots once reserved for single-family homes.
California has also made progress. A bill passed a few years ago allowed developers to bypass certain local planning and zoning ordinances if they build affordable housing – this is how the seven-story apartment building in the Sunset neighborhood, which sparked so much controversy, eventually prevailed over the resistance of the neighborhood. . But broader upzoning bills have been rejected – often because such measures have failed to galvanize even progressives who have supported the state’s groundbreaking goals to boost renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions. carbon.
As drought, unprecedented heat waves and forest fires rage across the country, calls to build cities and cut carbon emissions have become urgent. And the pressures to build higher, expand transportation, and reform land use laws have gained new momentum.
“Climate change has become the broccoli that everyone wants to grow on the plate,” Foote said. “It’s easy to argue that one housing project won’t make the difference between avoiding climate change and the global warming that’s killing us – but in reality, we have to say yes to as many of these housing projects as possible in order to ‘avoid a climate catastrophe. . “