Lower Density, Please?

Sacramento, California, is arguably the epicenter of the green policy initiatives that are changing the world. But living here in the center of the storm, watching the impact as these new “enlightened” policies get implemented, is not as blissful an experience as one might think.

According to today’s environmentalist
wisdom, if you have yard that requires
water to grow life, you are a eco-criminal.
Everyone must now live in cluster homes.

Having been an avid, utterly committed environmentalist for nearly 40 years, I think I’m entitled to a bit of skepticism while witnessing these latest, fairly intense iterations of environmentalism. I am increasingly convinced that much of the conventional wisdom of environmentalists today is dead wrong, and destructive to our way of life, our prosperity, and our freedom.

Being an environmentalist, to me, means being emphatically in favor of clean air, clean water, and clean soil. It means supporting reasonable efforts to preserve wilderness and wildlife, and more generally, to embrace a holistic world view that believes we should assess and mitigate all of our impacts so our civilization is sustainable, and nurtures the natural ecosystems of the planet. But in my opinion, this core set of beliefs has been perverted by environmentalists who are either well-intentioned but misguided, or who have hidden agendas.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to purchase a home in a quiet, semi-rural suburb. But today I see my lifestyle, and that of millions of hard working Californians just like me, under relentless attack. Why? Because our civic leaders have decided “open space” is so sacred that they have to declare “urban service boundaries” around the “footprint” of existing cities, beyond which no development can take place. Meanwhile, California’s population increases by over 500,000 persons per year. So “infill” developments of ultra high density are being crammed into every beautiful low density neighborhood within existing cities, with civic leaders designating “special planning areas” to get around zoning laws. There is no end in sight.

This is a bunch of communist nonsense. Why on earth did we bother spending a trillion dollars to defeat the Soviet Union, if today in the name of environmentalist values, property rights of anyone outside the “urban service boundary” are disregarded, and neighborhoods inside this prison wall (which is what it is) are utterly destroyed with hideous ultra-high density developments that make mockery of zoning laws which supposedly were designed to protect us?

We are within a few years of abundant energy – solar thermal, photovoltaic and wind sources alone will easily disrupt energy price equilibriums and provide abundant, cheap and clean energy to power not only homes, but cars. We don’t need to eliminate freeways if cars are clean and energy is abundant. And we certainly don’t have to cram people into “transit villages” where there are 10 (or even 20!) single family homes per acre. Ultra high density developments, outside of the chic urban core, will inevitably degrade to become slums. And these slums, via infill, are going to innoculate every beautiful semi-rural suburb in California with congestion and crime, unless the open space fanatics are challenged, and their influence over our elected officials is broken.

Being an environmentalist does not mean you have to be a misanthropic communist. But in practice, that is exactly what is happening.

7 Responses to “Lower Density, Please?”
  1. Brian Hayes says:

    Well said.
    It’s great to read a smart rant!

    I’m alarmed too about forcing infill, making law for carbon and not for culture, converting space into institutional compounds, using force in the form of increasing rules that hide blatant social management….

    Crap. It’s often futile to find a place to run my spring spaniel.

    Expediency has always used moral vision and will protect us from grand threats. But life has shown time and again, and communist central planning proved it too, that only the most vigorous participation of the folks on the ground will create workable solutions. That’s all Plato wanted.

    City committees behave as if they’re small local governments with a full mandate from voters who will easily take action and be part of the process. But that’s not true.

    Like big politics, for most folks it can take three generations to talk seriously with the mayor. Cities are massive enterprise, as big as nations. These governments have become too potent and too complex to be responsive democracies. They will not reflect the initiative of residents – which likely hide better visions of the future – until they are re-invented and truly localized again.

    Before we’ll truly adjust to create ways to live well in our environment and stop damaging our lifeblood, we ought to test our decision making methods.

    But here’s the opposite view from a respected columnist that thinks cities are cheaper, more sustainable, truly environmentally friendly and damn inevitable. Tim Harford writes What have cities ever done for us?

  2. Ed Ring says:

    Brian: Tim Harford is in many respects saying exactly the same thing we are. Here is a quote from the column you reference that sums it up, “London’s green belt has a similar effect, pushing economic activity away from London, where it is less resilient and less successful, and stretching commutes over longer distances.”

    That is what the “urban service boundaries” in California’s cities are doing. Instead of allowing the footprint of our cities to naturally expand, we are mandating “infill” in places where the market (the PEOPLE) would never want more housing. Mandated infill can never make up for zero expansion of a city’s footprint, so housing prices rise and urban housing becomes less affordable. Meanwhile, mandated infill destroys the quality of life within cities, driving people to migrate to the exurbs – i.e., these artificial mandates actually worsen urban sprawl at the same time as they make housing unaffordable.

  3. Brian Hayes says:

    For your interest, there’s sparks of rebellion in Vancouver, British Columbia where, can it be true?, the mayor has tried to trademark the word EcoDensity.

  4. Brian Hayes says:

    I’m sorry. My attempt to insert a link failed.

    EcoDensity story is here.

  5. Ed says:

    An EcoDensity trademark indeed. EcoDunce-city perhaps. Cram people in like sardines, drive them all mad like rats in a crowded cage, and call it smart growth; call it green. It’s getting interesting. The anti-density activists are becoming as numerous as the anti-growth people – and they haven’t figured out yet they’re on opposite sides of the fence. Environmentalism is taking what should have been leafy new suburbs, and turning them into sun scorched compounds where there isn’t even room to park a car or keep an outdoor cat – and every single one of the “smart growth principles” is open to debate, if not fatally flawed.

    Green EcoLowDensity is the key. Practice that.

  6. Brian Hayes says:

    Not to belabor just one of your many lucid posts, I just saw that the LATimes carried an Urban Land Institute report stating:

    Forty percent of the planet-heating gases that Californians emit come from transportation, according to the report’s authors, and with its booming population and sprawling suburbs, the state’s greenhouse emissions will continue to soar unless it dramatically changes the way it builds cities and suburbs.

    The report, “Growing Cooler: Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change,” analyzed scores of academic studies and concluded that compact development — mixing housing and businesses in denser patterns, with walkable neighborhoods — could do as much to lower emissions as many of the climate policies now promoted by state and national politicians.

    ULI has never supported sustainability in its history and this report is another broad brush to lobby developer interests, promoting major policy shifts with little analysis of either atmospheric or transportation systems.

    Becoming livid about pouring asphalt over urban open space? Perhaps another trademark idea for urban living? EcoLividity.

  7. Burt TUNZI says:

    Hi all,

    We need a class action lawsuit to sue those that insist we are emitting greenhouse gases, and that they are changing planet temperature.

    It would appear that Legislators have a technical vision of disaster that they (alone) can fix by raising taxes and spending money on “carbon sequestration” and other FIXES. What is entrophy and please define carbon sequestration in terms of physics, anyhow.

    Lets fix the weather first, smog second, and then hot air from non technical legislators who can only get re-elected by putting MTBE’s in gasoline without understanding the consequences.

    Maybe they don’t care. All in the name of saving our planet.

    NUCLEAR is the only clean solution and politicians do not mention the subject.



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