Cities Are Tucking Climate Fixes Into New Laws

JAKE ANDEREGG, THE Utah state senator representing Salt Lake City and Provo, didn’t actually mean to fight climate change. It was sort of an accident. As in a lot of places in the US, housing in Anderegg’s district is growing scarce and more expensive. 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.

The thing is, he kind of doesn’t. Smog above Salt Lake City? Sure, he wants to fix that. But climate change? “No, actually,” Anderegg says. “I’m a conservative Republican from northern Utah County, and I won my last election by 96 percent of the vote. It’s not really something my constituents care about.” ([Pushes up glasses, raises index finger]: Anderegg won his senate seat in 2016 unopposed; he won a 2014 re-election to the Utah House in 2014 with 82 percent of the vote.)

Point is, Anderegg wants transit-oriented development because his constituents care about air quality and life quality. If carbon should happen to get cut anyway? Hey, these things happen.

Cities across the US are rethinking their policies on homebuilding and transportation. Minneapolis lifted a longstanding, exclusionary ban on multifamily housing. San Franciscojoined a few other cities in ending requirements that new developments have a minimum number of parking spaces. Policymakers from big cities in Oregon and California have proposed statewide revisions to local zoning rules, making possible denser, multifamily homes and public transit. Communities like Austin and Berkeley, typically suspicious of new development, elected city council members with YIMBY-like platforms. (Citylab had a good roundup of the 2018 action.) And now the new governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has released a budget with a $1.3 billion goose to housing construction in cities.

In most of these cases, the arguments in favor of the policies have been about economics and justice. But oh, hey, cool: They also save the planet. “One goal is to increase market-rate and low-income housing to make housing more affordable. Number two is ending exclusionary zoning,” says Scott Wiener, a California state senator who is proposing a new version of a landmark transit and housing bill as he takes over the chair of the state’s Housing Committee. “But number three is reducing carbon emissions from transportation. When we have hyperlow density zoning near job centers and public transit, we force people to commute long distances, and that undermines our climate goals.”

As is often the case with climate and emissions science, the details of how denser cities and public transit reduce emissions get more complicated the harder you squint at them. The US alone emits almost half the world’s transportation-derived carbon dioxide, and recent researchsuggests that low-density cities are the biggest culprits—or at least that making those places denser would yield the biggest reductions. 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 neighborhoods more walkable, connect housing to work and recreation, and reduce vehicle miles traveled. “Collectively, these actions should clearly reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions,” says Lucy Hutyra, an earth scientist at Boston University who specializes in the urban carbon cycle. “However, the devil is in the implementation details.”

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