California’s Misguided Attempt to Force Urban Density

by |March 19, 2018
urban density

City living can be more sustainable than the suburbs. Governments should find ways to incentivize urban density. Photo: Hans Kylberg via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Conor Dougherty and Brad Plumer filed an illuminating piece in the New York Times entitled: “A Bold, Divisive Plan to Wean Californians From Cars.” According to these reporters, the policy is:

“…an audacious proposal to get Californians out of their cars: a bill in the State Legislature that would allow eight-story buildings near major transit stops, even if local communities object. The idea is to foster taller, more compact residential neighborhoods that wean people from long, gas-guzzling commutes, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.”

The proposal is built on the knowledge that people who live in apartments and can walk to work or shop use less energy than people who live in suburban sprawl style development; that is true. We should do all we can to encourage urban population density, which is one of the themes of my new book, The Sustainable City. Density provides economies of scale that enable the use of expensive high-tech infrastructure for energy, transportation, water filtration, sewage treatment and waste management. But there are no shortcuts to urban sustainability. It needs to be built on positive reinforcement and mass social and cultural change. In America, a government edict will not work. If a community doesn’t want density, government should not make them accept it. But if a community won’t accept greater population density, they should not receive the benefit of a new train station either. Instead, we should build a train station where a community is interested in building a town square with higher densities than the surrounding area. In fact, we could have the same rule for new highway exits. Government should provide incentives for density; it should not try to mandate it.

The idea that sustainability requires unwanted lifestyle changes dooms the politics of sustainability. We need to approach sustainability positively. Sprawl development was not an accident. Yes, people liked the idea of more living space and their own backyards, but government built highways that subsidized their transportation, made mortgage interest and property taxes deductible, and developed federal insurance for home mortgages. People were paid to move to the suburbs. Suburban development was not an accident, but a national public policy. Most suburbanites got a lot of what they hoped for, but they also got traffic, dependence on more and more cars, and often long commutes to and from work.

Young people are gravitating to cities for the entertainment, convenience, excitement and, in some cases, for the opportunity to live sustainably and consume fewer finite resources. The trick will be to keep them in cities when they start to raise families. Older people are returning to cities for the elevators, taxis, social engagement, entertainment and health care. California’s legislature should develop a more sophisticated policy design to encourage densely settled communities. The policy design should be less blunt than a sledgehammer forcing communities to accept apartment buildings.

Dougherty and Plumer discuss positive approaches in their article and observe that:

“California tried an incentive approach to density with the Sustainable Communities Act, a sweeping bill passed in 2008. But some experts say it did not go nearly far enough to change the state’s urban sprawl or car culture.”

California’s car culture and desire to maintain single family housing through local zoning rules is so extreme that there is a severe housing shortage and its residents devote a higher proportion of their income to housing than most Americans. By definition, the policy approaches employed so far have not worked. It will take more to get people out of their cars and back on their feet.

One approach might be to find communities that are willing to encourage higher density in return for new mass transit lines. Communities located beyond existing lines could be approached to see if they are interested. Bus rapid transit like the system in Bogota, Columbia, or light rail like Portland, Oregon, or Jerusalem, Israel are relatively lower priced ways of building mass transit lines. Renters in high density communities might receive an income tax deduction for living in apartments.  A variety of creative financing schemes and new forms of transportation could reduce auto miles travelled per capita–without inconveniencing people or impairing their quality of life.

If we are going to reduce the environmental impact of our way of life, people need to be positively attracted to that way of life. Punitive policies are also unlikely to work in the long run. Apartments might be built and then only filled at a financial loss. Under those conditions, developers and the housing market will cause the policy to fail. The counter-argument is that California’s housing shortage is so acute that no housing development in California can fail. Perhaps, but the idea that sustainability requires individuals and communities to accept outcomes they do not want will become more deeply ingrained in our political life.

A better approach is to make urban living more affordable and attractive. Improve the schools so that families do not gravitate to the suburbs to raise children. Improve parks, mass transit and use new technologies to improve air quality. Provide incentives to locate assisted living facilities for the elderly in areas with higher population density. In sum, use public policy to encourage the private sector to invest in cities.

As a resident of New York City, I don’t need to be sold on the lifestyle advantages of city life. I have benefited from New York’s rebirth in the 21st century. While our subway system needs reinvestment, our schools, parks and public safety have all improved dramatically over the past two decades. Most of my transit is by foot or by the subway. I live within walking distance of Riverside, Central and Morningside Parks. My wife and I enjoy the city’s entertainment, restaurants, shops, cultural life and streets. I am fortunate in owning a summer bungalow a few blocks from Long Island’s south shore and I live close enough to the mountains that I can easily experience nature when I get tired of the city. I enjoy city life, but it’s not for everyone. Our public policies should not be designed to compel lifestyles that people do not want.

Given America’s pattern of land use development, increased density can only be one element of the sustainability solution. Personal transportation will always be part of the American way of life. We need to invest in the technology to make electric vehicles cheaper and better than those based on the internal combustion engine. We need to build an energy system dominated by renewable energy. We will require better technology to ensure that suburban development reduces its carbon footprint. Government can push density, but it also needs to invest in the technology and infrastructure that make suburban living more sustainable.

Perhaps because environmental policy is heavily influenced by physical and natural scientists, there is an attempt to “solve” environmental problems. Public policy is not like solving an equation or testing a hypothesis. It is not neat and rational. It is messy, incomplete, partial, and remedial. We don’t actually solve public policy problems, we make them less bad. The air is cleaner in New York today than it was in 1970, but it is far from pristine. Crime has been dramatically reduced here, but it will never be eliminated. Sustainable cities will be built gradually over the coming decades. The process can be accelerated with sophisticated, carefully designed public policies. California needs more renewable energy, more electric vehicles, and as much increased density as they can attractively design. But people should be encouraged to live this way, not compelled to. For a sustainable lifestyle to truly take root, it needs to be seen as a more interesting, exciting and fashionable way of living than today’s typical suburban living.

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11 thoughts on “California’s Misguided Attempt to Force Urban Density

  1. “In America, a government edict will not work.”
    “Apartments might be built and then only filled at a financial loss.”
    “people need to be positively attracted to that way of life.”

    It isn’t clear from this that the writer understands the nature of the proposed California housing bill SB827.

    The bill does not create an edict for how anyone is to live; just the opposite, it *removes* the edicts by which local zoning has widely prevented space-efficient housing around transit in California cities. Millions of people would like to move to or afford to stay in California’s high-opportunity, comparatively environmental-benign cities, but they are forced out to sub/exurbs or other states, with higher environmental impact, because of the severe and chronic shortage of urban housing.

    The bill doesn’t force the building of housing that people don’t want. It simply allows builders to create it, in places where there is demonstrated demand, and where the public has already invested in transit stations and routes.

    Tim McCormick
    Editor, YIMBYwiki
    Oakland & Portland

  2. Payton Chung says:

    The author appears to be mistaken about how zoning works in the U.S. Zoning codes almost always set maximums, not minimums. No land owner is “coerced” into building anything they do not want by zoning. Instead, the government coercion works the other way: government limits the size/shape/use of what the landowner is allowed to build.

    What SB 827 does is to set minimums on the maximums.

    Also, the climate crisis is here, and requires action of absolutely unprecedented scope. A few carrots have so far proven largely ineffective at meeting even the weak CO2 reduction goals that a few governments have set — none of which match the scope of the problem. Stronger, more effective policies will inevitably be seen by others as “coercion.”

  3. Matthew Lewis says:

    Hi Steve,

    I think you’ve made the error of reading the article’s editorializing at face value. The bill won’t “force” anything on any California city; it merely establishes that property owners within a quarter mile of transit have the right to build dense buildings, with certain other conditions. The bill in effect prevents anti-housing city councils from using dirty tricks to block new housing proposals, which is the direct cause of California’s housing crisis.

    There is a chance that, in many neighborhoods, current property owners never seek to upzone their properties. Nothing in the law would change that. Your characterization of the bill as “forcing change” on cities is, therefore, wrong, and I hope you consider amending this piece to reflect that.

  4. djw says:

    It’s difficult to describe how misleading it is to use the line “In America, a government edict will not work.” in defense of—-laws that mandate low-density development only near important transit nodes. Those are “government edicts” too! And they’re working just fine, for people who want to heighten the scarcity of their investment, hoard access to public goods, and maintain economic segregation. For the rest of us, not so much.

  5. Jake says:

    The author is 100% correct that the sb827 is ill-designed and will not pass, wouldn’t work if it did pass. This is a force-fed approach, in that it is a sharp attack on municipal government and the rights of citizens/voters in a given city to determine their unique path forward. Attempts to divert from this root-level theft of power, by the state are illusionary.

  6. Aaron Bauman says:

    Suburban life is not sustainable in its current form. To solve California’s housing crisis, and to make suburban living more sustainable, will require drastic change and acceptance of hard realities. As a country, we have over-invested in sprawl, and subsidized it at the expense of our cities.

    Until suburbs can support their own maintenance costs, they will continue to be grossly unsustainable. Spoiler alert: either suburban living becomes much much much more expensive, or it gets denser.

  7. Nick says:

    Communities in California already oppose new lines of public transit, so witholding transit as a carrot for density is not going to motivate communities in the slightest.

  8. Chris says:

    As others have pointed out, you have clearly missed the point. The government is not seeking to build higher density by edict. They are seeking to remove the limitations on density currently being imposed by lower levels of government in order to allow for the possibility of higher density where the market would support it, which is impossible due to overly restrictive or NIMBY-coddling zoning laws.

  9. TSL says:

    By far the vast majority of child-rearing decisions regarding land use and housing typology reject tall buildings and totally embrace the backyard and larger living space. It’s the single largest reason why upper income people emigrate from HongKong and Singapore!

    The public park cannot replace the private backyard. Parents who work do not have the time to continually escort children and supervise onsite, not for middle class earners unlike New York where some parks are nanny parks. What children need and parents want is direct access to,ground-level outdoor space with no “stranger” presence that children can self-access at will and with parental knowledge and passive supervision. Until denified design makes that a functional reality (no unwanted lifestyle change) all efforts to accommodate families with density will utterly fail and fertility will in turn breed sprawl.

  10. Ethan Hudgins says:

    “Government should provide incentives for density; it should not try to mandate it.”

    Steve, this opinion is simply not correct. The government should absolutely mandate density in many cases.

    Cities should not have to ask permission to grow naturally.

  11. Payton Chung says:

    @TSL: Over 70% of US households today do not have children. Single PERSON households now substantially outnumber two-parents-plus-kids households. The minority of households that do have children should not monopolize every single planning decision, much less ones that affect only the most urbanized parts of major cities.

    And again, nobody is talking about banning yards. US zoning works by setting MINIMUM yard sizes. There are NO maximums on yard size. You are absolutely free to build a detached house with a yard on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (“Museum Mile” was once a “Millionaire’s Mile” of large homes.)

    Most of America’s urbanized land is zoned to REQUIRE that each and every household consume ridiculously unsustainable amounts of land, building square footage (and thus energy), parking, automobiles, etc. That these minimums exist is patently counter to the goal of “one planet living” — a fact recognized by the fact that LEED awards substantial points for higher building densities.

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