The Best Laid Plans:
Our Planning and Affordable Housing
Challenges in Marin
by Bob Silvestri
@CVP - Challenging Plan Bay Area
Why The One Bay Area’s Growth Plan Is Not the Answer to Our Housing Needs
By Bob Silvestri - March 7, 2012
Challenging ABAG'S One Bay Area Plan and its assumptions about high-density housing and its long-term view of the automobile.
For more a more indepth discussion on this subject please read "Why High Density Housing Will Not Reduce Greenhouse Gases"
In reaction to my Op-Ed piece, some people commented that we have no choice but to accept One Bay Area’s vision because the urgency of our climate change crisis demands that we do everything we can, right now, without hesitation. But doing “everything we can” and doing “more of the same” is an important distinction we need to make.
That said, there are three things wrong with the argument that says we have to take action indiscriminately. The first is the assumption that there is an egalitarian “we” that can respond effectively to climate change issues. The second is the assumption that One Bay Area is a viable solution based on the belief that high density development reduces greenhouse gases (GHG). And the third is that the automobile is inherently evil.
Unfortunately, the first assumption is false, the second is not based on science or facts and the third is just ignorance.
1. What can we do right now to address climate change?
The truth is that while individuals are offered very few GHG reducing options in the basic services and products we need to buy (and I’m not talking about green-washed nonsense like MEA), the real GHG culprits (energy producers, corporate agribusiness, transportation manufacturers, consumer products manufacturers and big industry) continue to resist any changes to their business-as-usual models.
Years of professionally managed messaging and green-washed advertising have “shamed” people into obsessing about every drop of water they waste, every table scrap that’s not composted and every slip of paper not recycled. This brainwashing is happily promoted by mainstream media and quasi-public agencies (ABAG, MTC, et al) looking to increase their reach. It averts attention from the real story. As a result, many educated, well-intended, socially conscious people are convinced that everything is their responsibility and the future will be very bleak without immediately adopting “solutions” like One Bay Area. This is pure nonsense.
Climate change solutions need to first and foremost address the sources of GHGs “up the ladder” before forcing burdensome adaptations on individuals and small communities “down the ladder.” What we are being subjected to is a classic example of the old principle that “s**t flows downhill.”
Our climate change problems are primarily a national policy failure which is expressed through dysfunctional tax, subsidy and funding mechanisms. Our federal government has never had a national energy policy and still refuses to cooperate with every other industrialized nation in the world on climate change treaties. Taxpayers in the U.S. spend almost a trillion dollars a year subsidizing oil and gas (tax subsidies, program subsidies etc.), while new energy technologies and products wither and die due to lack of financial support. All of this leaves state and regional governments in a lurch.
2 – Does high density development near mass transit really reduce GHG emissions?
Shockingly, there is no scientific evidence that proves high density development near mass transit reduces GHG per capita overall. In fact, “cities” (high density taken to its logical conclusion) are greater net GHG producers per capita than suburban and semi-rural communities like Marin County. New York City, for example, arguably the poster child for “high density development near transportation,” is the fifth highest GHG producer on the planet.
High density may be “mechanically” efficient but that isn’t the same as being environmentally beneficial, particularly when you include the exogenous demands it places on regional ecosystems. Cities with the highest densities import more water and power from greater distances (with greater losses and costs along the way) and export more GHGs because they can’t be mitigated locally. Marin, on the other hand, with its livable scale and balance of developed land to open space, produces less overall environmental impact and mitigates much of its GHG output locally. Certainly there’s more we must do but Marin is already possibly the best model of sustainability we have anywhere in this country.
3 – What about cars and trucks?
Robert Lutz, the famous automotive pioneer and former head of General Motors, recently said that within 10 years battery technology will have reached a point where the internal combustion engine will no longer be able to compete economically with electric powered vehicles and will become obsolete with or without legislation: this coming from the man who invented the “muscle car.”
So if our cars and trucks begin to average about 40 mpg (this technology, hybrid or electric, is readily available today) and more importantly, regardless of engine type, they meet ZEV standards (Zero Emissions Vehicle – many hybrids already do this), the car is no longer an important GHG contributor. So why in the world would we base an enormously disruptive and expensive long-term plan, like One Bay Area, on the premise that it is?
Imagine if property owners in Marin had real financial and tax incentives to install solar panels and small wind turbines on their rooftops, trade up for energy-saving appliances, use LEEDS Platinum building standards for new construction, etc. At-the-source solutions could cut Marin’s energy usage and GHG output by 50 percent and possibly more. For a fraction of the financial costs (not to mention the social and environmental costs) of One Bay Area’s dark vision, we could probably exceed their goals for 2025 by about 500 percent even with the additional growth we actually need.
I would suggest that this is the “everything” that we should be promoting rather than just more high density and 19th century mass transit concepts. And if you still think “growth” and “doing more of the same” is somehow a solution to cutting GHGs and environmental sustainability, consider our addiction to growth is doing to the planet, with species extinction accelerating, forests dwindling, fisheries in crisis and desertification increasing at alarming rates, among other evidence.
No reasonable person is arguing against any growth at all. Certainly, mixed-use and infill housing and higher density in appropriate settings (as decided on a community by community basis) are possible, perhaps even desirable.
But please, make no mistake about it. SB375 is not a climate change bill. SB 375 was crafted by Senator Darrell Steinberg. The list of his top contributors over the years continues to be a who’s who of financial, building, banking and other real estate special interests.
So the next time you hear someone telling you about the burdens we have to bear to fix problems you didn’t create, I would suggest that instead of dutifully resigning yourself to a bleak future vision like One Bay Area, push back “up the ladder.” Stand up to the fashionable thinking of our times and just say “No.”
We need to nurture and lead with innovation and grassroots community participation, not give up all we have worked so hard for generations to create. The vicious cycle of endless growth, urbanization and false hopes pinned on delusional social engineering and central planning have always failed and will always fail.
But if we act like sheep, we deserve to be sheared.