No, We Don’t Have to Sacrifice Neighborhoods to Save the Planet

Here’s a video of Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick saying the city needs to “sacrifice” its single-family neighborhoods in order to stop climate change. We’ve known that planners feel this way, but rarely do they say it in so many words.


From portland politic on Vimeo.

Previously, many Portland politicians have promised to preserve existing neighborhoods by keeping all high-density developments within a half mile of light-rail and other major transit lines. The unspoken truth was that nearly all single-family homes were within a half mile of a major bus corridor, and Portland wants to build so many rail lines that soon most homes would be within a half mile of one of those lines as well.

In a book reviewed here a couple of months ago, Sonia Hirt (an immigrant from eastern Europe) asks why Americans care so much about whether apartments are located amidst their neighborhoods of single-family homes. Maybe they shouldn’t, but the real question is why Portland planners care so much about whether people live in single-family homes or apartments.

In 1990, about 65 percent of Portland-area households were in single-family homes, which is close to the national average. The 2040 plan that Portland’s Metro adopted in the mid-1990s set a target of reducing this to 41 percent. According to table B25024 of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, by 2014 this share had already declined to less than 58 percent.

According to an analysis by the city of Portland itself, building the mid-rise housing Portland favors costs almost 50 percent more per square foot than single-family homes. According to the Department of Energy, multifamily homes also use around 27 percent more energy per square foot than single-family homes.

Novick and other true believers nevertheless think that multifamily housing is better because people who live in such housing supposedly drive less. But where is the evidence for that? The San Francisco Bay Area has increased its population density by 65 percent and built 200 miles of new rail transit lines since 1980, yet per capita transit ridership has fallen by a third and per capita driving has increased.

Even if we believed planners who say that high-density, mixed-use developments lead people to drive less, we have to ask if this is the most cost-effective way of saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As the Antiplanner has previously shown, the answer is clearly “No!”

Building more fuel-efficient cars using simple improvements such as substituting aluminum for steel, Diesels for gasoline, and streamlining for boxy designs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a cost of about $50 per ton of carbon emissions. Hybrid-electric cars or other alternative fuel sources can reduce emissions at a cost of about $100 per ton. But, even using the most optimistic data provided by the planners, urban densification costs several thousand dollars a ton to reduce emissions. In fact, it probably doesn’t reduce emissions at all because the increased traffic congestion ends up wasting a lot of fuel that could have been saved at lower densities.

Ironically, Portland’s densification plans were written before climate change was a major issue. At that time, the main goal was supposed to be farmland preservation and reduction of urban-service costs. Neither of those goals made sense: urbanization represents such a small share of United States that it is no threat to farmlands. A study commissioned by smart-growth advocates concluded that ridding the state of all its land-use regulations would result in just 1 percent more of Oregon’s Willamette Valley being developed (7.6 percent vs. 6.6 percent).

As far as urban service costs go, saving a few thousand dollars per home on service costs doesn’t do much good when you have to increase the price of homes by a couple hundred thousand dollars to do it.

Since those arguments made no sense, planners happily jumped on the global-warming bandwagon to claim that their predetermined densification strategy was necessary to save the planet. In fact, it is neither necessary nor useful in reducing carbon emissions, and those who say it is are either deceiving the public or have been deceived themselves.

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6 thoughts on “No, We Don’t Have to Sacrifice Neighborhoods to Save the Planet

  1. JimKarlock

    Isn’t this how most of government actually works: “According to this particular slimeball, they just made up the land use regulations “as they went along”.
    The purpose of consultants, studies & public input is to justify their “made up” stuff.

  2. OFP2003

    I drove down Washington DC’s H Street Trolley corridor this Sunday morning. Who ever thought this would work. Unfortunately, I think it will take someone getting out of the car and being run over by the train to finally end this folly. It looks like an old-style 1970’s car door fully open would reach as far as the trolley tracks. Really bad idea.
    Oh yeah it also doesn’t go anywhere so it sure isn’t for commuters. Is this the fruit of “Planners”??? So sad if this is the state of the profession.

  3. Frank

    “planners happily jumped on the global-warming bandwagon to claim that their predetermined densification strategy was necessary to save the planet.”

    Meanwhile, said planners continued choosing low-density, large single family homes.

  4. paul

    When planners argue they are saving CO2 emission ask at what price per tonne. Without a cost any claims of CO2 reduction are meaningless.

    In my experience planners don’t know anything about cost efficiency when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions. They are just using this as an excuse to proceed with the plans they have wanted for the last 40 years, even as many of them drive to work, have subsidized parking and live in single family homes.

    Many times I have spoken in front of planning agencies and hammered away at the fact their plans are not a cost effective way of CO2 reduction. My arguments have frequently been undermined by other speakers who claim that this global warming is all just a hoax. At that point the planners smile and nob politely and disregard my cost arguments, apparently lumping me in with those who claim global warming is a hoax. As Wendell Cox once said at an American Dream conference, claiming global warming is a hoax is not a “winnable argument”. Even if one thinks it is a hoax it is a non-issue as the planners plans are not cost effective ways of CO2 reduction. Therefore keep hammering away on the winnable argument that their plans are not a cost effective reduction of CO2. That way we might be able to make a difference in their plans.

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    OFP2003 wrote:

    I drove down Washington DC’s H Street Trolley corridor this Sunday morning. Who ever thought this would work.

    Putting the operational issues of this project aside for a moment, one thing it is not likely to do is substantially reduce carbon emissions, since the PJM Interconnection, the high-voltage grid operator that serves the District of Columbia and nearby areas (including all of Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and nearly all of Virginia), relies on fossil fuels for over 60% of its electric power generation, which means that electric public transit vehicles also rely on fossil fuels for traction power.

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