Housing in Palo Alto no villains, just tough choices
Original post made
on Sep 19, 2007
Karen White wrote recently that "the state and ABAG housing allocations represent an unfunded mandate on Palo Alto and other cities." (Weekly Guest Opinion, Sept. 5).
Read the complete Guest Opinion by Stephen Levy here: Web Link
posted Wednesday, September 19, 2007, 12:00 AM
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 25, 2007 at 11:57 am
I think we need to separate the discussions of 1) personal land use preferences, 2) science 3) environmental policy and 4) land use policy.
Suburbanists - Like living in neighborhoods with suburban residential densities (1-8 units/acre, or single-family lot sizes of 1 acre-5,000 sf). Like low-density retail and job centers, which limit traffic generation. Prefer to separate land uses by district. Willing to accept (or even like) auto-centric transportation system required for most travel in a suburban environment. Believe that the perceived benefits of suburban living outwiegh the perceived burdens of urban living.
Urbanists - Like living in neighborhoods with urban residential densities (8+ units/acre, or single-family lot sizes of less than 5,000 sf + multi-family buildings (up to 100 units/acre in Palo Alto (Alma Place)), much greater density in other cities). Like high-density retail and job centers, which generate more traffic and provide densities that can support transit, if transit funding is available. Prefer to mix land uses within districts. Prefer to walk or use transit and avoid auto travel. Believe that the percieved benefits of urban living are greater than the perceived burdens of suburban living.
Full Disclosure: I am an urbanist. My strong personal preference is for the benefits and burdens of urban living, as opposed to the benefits and burdens of suburban living.
I strongly believe that we do not have to spend any more time yelling at each other about which preference - urban or suburban - is better. People will prefer whatever they prefer.
What we need to do is consider the science of the climate crisis and other environmental problems and decide how, if at all, we are going to respond.
The climate crisis is casued by large-scale release of carbon atoms into the atmosphere that have been sequestered in solid and liquid fossil fuels for millenia. The only way to address the climate crisis is to reduce atmospheric carbon release.
Most other environmental problems (pollution, habitat loss, water diversion) are caused by conversion of wilderness lands to agriculture, and agriculture lands to residential and commercial use.
The staight-line relatioinship between intensification of land use and increased environmental impacts (wilderness to agriculature to built environment) does a U-turn, however, in the shift from suburban to urban built environment. Urbanization decreases per capita consumption of land and carbon. More people live and work on an acre of urbanized land. Transit-supporting urban densities can allow (if transit is funded) reduced auto use, which causes the release of the greatest amount of atmospheric carbon.
The City of Palo Alto has repeatedly stated in policy documents (Comprehensive Plan and others) that we should seek to conserve and restore the natural environment. The City has, more recently, stated that the climate crisis is our most pressing environmental problem.
Land Use Policy
The question is: What should our land use pattern be, going forward? What policy goals should inform our land use decisions?
If our overarching goal is to conserve and restore the environment, and the climate crisis is the most urgent environmental issue, then we need a land use pattern that enables us to do so. Increasing desnity by shifting from a suburban to an urban land use pattern is the most significant step we can take to reduce carbon emissions, to enable reduced auto travel.
I believe that this question should first be answered independent of local, regional, national or global population growth projections. Even if we could magically filp a switch a stop all population growth, the existing land use pattern in Palo Alto would still be one of the most land- and carbon-consumptive patterns on Earth. All our hybrid cars, bike lanes, tree planting, compact flourescent light bulbs and recycling cannot significantly mitigate our large per-capita consumption of land and our extreme per-capita consumption and release of carbon. In other words, even if we did not add a single new resident, trip or job to Palo Alto, we would still be consuming far more land and carbon, per-capita, than a healthy environment can sustain.
Then when we layer on the fact of population growth in the Bay Area, California and across the globe, decisions about reducing per-capita environmental impacts via our land use pattern become even more important. Establishing urban growth boundaries around the region and directing new growth into existing communities becomes more than smart growth: It becomes essential to global environmental health.
So ultimately the debate about the ABAG numbers becomes pretty minor, when placed in the context of the climate crisis. We will have to make greater changes to our land use pattern than just adding 3,505 new housing units in the next 8 years, if we hope to have any meaningful impact on the climate crisis.
Final Full Disclosure: Because I'm an urbanist, I believe that shifting to a more urban land use pattern in Palo Alto will make our City a better place to live and work. So I do not subscribe to a glum, resigned, eat-your-peas-cause-they're-good-for-you view of new development in Palo Alto, that we should embrace it to share the unfortunate burden of addressing the climate crisis and other environmental problems. Instead, I think we have an opportunity to do good and do well: We have the happy opportunity to reduce our impacts on the environment and create a more livable community, at the same time.