The shifting environmental narrative on development

Recently, urbanists and others in support of density have mostly focused on the affordability case for increased housing in the urban core. In addition to highlighting pretty board consensus among economists that, yes, supply and demand is relevant to housing costs, urbanists point out that zoning that only allows for relatively large single-family homes will inherently be off-limits to certain economic groups. Finally, they argue that denser development facilitates public transit, which liberates people from the expense of owning and operating a car.

Now that I think of it, I’m really surprised that there hasn’t been a greater emphasis on the environmental case for density. After all, this is a city who’s political establishment and political image was built on environmentalism. Also, there’s that whole climate change thing. It’s hard to predict how the average liberal voter in Austin will feel about what the city should do to address housing costs, but you can bet that they’ll say that global warming is a problem and that policies aimed at reducing car use are probably part of the solution.

Obviously, one reason that the environmental narrative for density hasn’t been strong is that many of the official voices of environmentalism in Austin have spent the last 30 years fighting developers, often in alignment with neighborhood associations. This is what Mose Buchele’s excellent article in KUT/Austin Monitor recently displayed.

Bunch, the executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance, says he was opposed to CodeNEXT in part because he didn’t like the added density it would have brought to Central Austin.

“The place to do that is on green fields development,” he says. “Do it right at the front end rather than scrape our existing city neighborhoods and try to force it on top of existing communities.”

This isn’t the first time Bunch has said something to this effect, but this apparent endorsement of sprawl was even more explicit. He’s getting raked over the coals for it, and not just by the usual suspects. The Austin Chronicle, for instance: Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 5.37.39 PM.png

Buchele’s reporting, citing experts and research, presented density as clearly superior environmentally to sprawl. So did a similar article by ThinkProgress, which parachuted into town to explore the environmentalist division over Prop J. Edgar Walters, a reporter for the Texas Tribune, didn’t hesitate to declare Bunch’s views as insane:

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3 thoughts on “The shifting environmental narrative on development

  1. Selective citing of “experts” is neither fair nor balanced, it’s propaganda. Let this be known and repeated: both Bill Bunch and I are experts in our chosen fields of environmental practice. As an environmental anthropologist I certainly have a point of view on these questions, often from an equity lens. Here’s a suggestion: I am the author of the environmental quality resolution that is a part of the People’s Plan. How about reporting about it, and the plan more generally?

    FWIW, I debunk the claim that CodeNEXT would be good for the environment on my blog at It’s just as fatuous a claim as the narrative that implementation of CodeNEXT would be good for affordability.

    Bottom line:
    “Experts” can and do disagree about the “environmental” impacts of real estate development, and much else besides. What largely explains where one comes down on this issue is what one believes about urban politics and the politics of real estate development more generally. This is as true about schools of architecture and planning as it is about private or non-profit sector actors.

    If you want to try to make Bill Bunch and other pro-Prop J folks look bad, please do so in a manner that is more dignified and honest. I’m happy to participate in an Oxford style one-on-one debate with anti-sprawl density urbanists, any place, any time.

    1. “Selective citing of ‘experts’ is neither fair nor balanced, it’s propaganda.”

      Wow. Just … wow. First you referenced “fair and balanced” journalism apparently absent even a *hint* of irony, and then pulled a card directly from the Donald Trump pot-kettle deck — all within the space of 11 words! Impressive.

      And just to be clear, you’re accusing a legendarily liberal alt-weekly, an NPR station, *and* the Texas Tribune — arguably the highest-caliber journalism publisher still in existence anywhere in the state, with the possible exception of Texas Monthly — of promoting cherry-picked “propaganda.” AND you seem to think anyone with a lick of common sense will buy it. My jaw is still agape.

      “If you want to try to make Bill Bunch and other pro-Prop J folks look bad, please do so in a manner that is more dignified and honest.”

      I’m sorry, but how is directly quoting this city’s leading journalism outlets and individual journos either “undignified” or “dishonest,” in ANY context of the terms?

      “I’m happy to participate in an Oxford style one-on-one debate with anti-sprawl density urbanists, any place, any time.”

      I’ll just hazard a guess you failed to notice that you just tacitly described yourself as pro-sprawl. (Or that you just ripped off Ted Cruz’s debate proposal to Beto.)

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