Cities, Suburbs & Environmentalism

An interesting article from City Journal postulating that the resistance the environmental movement encourages against most city development, is actually bad for environmentalism, a paradox operating in many fields, unfortunately.

An excerpt.

“On a pleasant April day in 1844, Henry David Thoreau—the patron saint of American environmentalism—went for a walk along the Concord River in Massachusetts. With a friend, he built a fire in a pine stump near Fair Haven Pond, apparently to cook a chowder. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been much rain lately, the fire soon spread to the surrounding grass, and in the end, over 300 acres of prime woodland burned. Thoreau steadily denied any wrongdoing. “I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it,” he later wrote. The other residents of Concord were less forgiving, taking a reasonably dim view of even inadvertent arson. “It is to be hoped that this unfortunate result of sheer carelessness, will be borne in mind by those who may visit the woods in future for recreation,” the Concord Freeman opined.

“Thoreau’s accident illustrates a point that is both paradoxical and generally true: if you want to be good to the environment, stay away from it. Move to high-rise apartments surrounded by plenty of concrete. Americans who settle in leafy, low-density suburbs will leave a significantly deeper carbon footprint, it turns out, than Americans who live cheek by jowl in urban towers. And a second paradox follows from the first. When environmentalists resist new construction in their dense but environmentally friendly cities, they inadvertently ensure that it will take place somewhere else—somewhere with higher carbon emissions. Much local environmentalism, in short, is bad for the environment.

“Matthew Kahn, a professor of economics at UCLA, and I have quantified the first paradox. We begin by estimating the amount of carbon dioxide that an average household would emit if it settled in each of the 66 major metropolitan areas in the United States. Then we calculate, for 48 of those areas, the difference between what that average household would emit if it settled in the central city and what it would emit in the suburbs….

“But California’s abundant restrictions on new construction don’t do much to deter building across America as a whole. No matter what the Bay Area does, plenty of new households will come into being, and they will need new homes. By restricting local development, California regulators just make sure that construction occurs someplace else. That someplace else tends to be a lot less environmentally friendly than the California coast, blessed as it is with a superbly temperate climate. The net result of this process: land-use restrictions in California increase carbon emissions and raise the risks of global warming.

“The great irony, of course, is that land-use regulations are so often justified by environmental arguments. In the early 1960s, California was still fairly friendly to new development. Then an environmental movement emerged that tried, for example, to “Save the Bay” by preventing development near San Francisco. Town after town increased regulatory barriers to new construction, such as growth controls, which limit the number of permits that can be issued at the local level. Further, in 1972, the California Supreme Court handed the state’s environmental movement a stunning victory in Friends of Mammoth v. Board of Supervisors of Mono County, requiring large numbers of private developments to undergo environmental impact reviews. The reviews are fundamentally one-sided: they consider only the impact on the local environment if the development occurs, not the impact on the national or global environment if the development fails to occur. In principle, all environmental reviews in the Golden State should consider the fact that if building doesn’t occur in coastal California, then it is likely to occur someplace with considerably higher carbon emissions.

“So California environmentalists have things exactly backward. If climate change is the major environmental challenge that we face, the state should actively encourage new construction, rather than push it toward other areas. True, increasing development in California might increase per-household carbon emissions within the state if the new development, following the current model, took place on the extreme edges of urban areas. A better path would be to ease restrictions in the urban cores of San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. More building there would reduce average commute lengths and improve per-capita emissions. Higher densities could also justify more investment in new, low-emissions energy plants.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
This entry was posted in demographics. Bookmark the permalink.